Russia has recently escalated its attacks in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib amid talk about Ankara seeking normalization with Damascus.
On Aug. 22, Russian warplanes launched several air raids on the western outskirts of Idlib city as part of the military escalation Russia has been carrying out against the area for days.
Sources in Idlib told Al-Monitor that Russian Su-34 planes carried out 13 raids with thermobaric bombs on the western outskirts of Idlib city.
Russian reconnaissance aircraft simultaneously flew over the area, and the Syrian government forces targeted several opposition-controlled areas with artillery shells.
Majd Kilany, political researcher at the Istanbul-based Jusoor Center for Studies, currently residing in Idlib, told Al-Monitor, “The opposition-controlled areas in the northwest of Syria are subjected to almost daily bombardment by Russian aircraft and artillery shelling by regime forces on several areas in Idlib and Aleppo.”
On the impact of these attacks on the cease-fire reached between Moscow and Ankara in March 2020, and the Astana process, led by Russia, Iran and Turkey, Kilany said, “These attacks targeting civilians on an almost daily basis pose a threat to the area’s stability. The de-escalation zone in northwestern Syria has been witnessing the longest period of calm between the Syrian regime and the opposition [since the cease-fire reached in March 2020]. However, the calm did not turn into a comprehensive and sustainable cease-fire [amid sporadic attacks], as the parties to the Syrian conflict often clash, with Russia and Turkey still not reaching a final agreement on the fate of the area.”
Kilany noted, “There are concerns that the Idlib cease-fire could collapse at any moment, as long as the guarantor parties — Russia, Turkey and Iran — have not reached a final understanding on the outstanding issues, including the size of the Turkish military deployment that is not stipulated within the Astana process, in addition to the mechanism of operating international roads, and the fate of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham [HTS], among others.”
He added, “However, the chances of this scenario [the failure of the cease-fire] remain weak based on the orientations of the guarantor countries. Most statements by Turkish officials express Turkey’s firm stance toward the political process and support for the opposition within the framework of UN Security Council Resolution No. 2254. They know very well the extent of the intransigence of the Syrian regime and Russia regarding the political process, and they will not make any concessions on the Syrian file.”
Kilany pointed out, “All parties are committed to the calm since the signing of the cease-fire in Moscow in 2020. These parties believe that reaching a political solution through rapprochement with Turkey is the best solution for the Syrian file. This will not change in the foreseeable future.”
Meanwhile, the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition and other jihadist factions are concerned that Turkey’s rapprochement with the Syrian government and its preoccupations with its upcoming presidential elections due next summer would mean more attacks on their areas in northwestern Syria.
HTS field commander Abbas Abu Khaled told Al-Monitor, “HTS and all the factions in Idlib are ready for any possible military scenario. We have a great capacity for guerrilla warfare and military techniques, and we have newly trained military battalions and brigades. We also have drones and are able to catch the enemy by surprise in any upcoming military confrontation.”
He added, “We do not want to carry out any military action now, but Russia can take advantage of Turkey’s preoccupation with the elections, and the Syrian regime can exploit Turkey’s desire to reconcile with it. This is why we will remain vigilant for all possibilities.”
A leader in the Syrian political opposition residing in Turkey told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “We are very concerned about Turkey's intention to open a new chapter with the Syrian regime. This means that it recognizes its legitimacy, and thus no longer cares about overthrowing it. This is a very dangerous change in the Turkish position, so Russia and the regime will seek to seize the opposition areas that will end up fighting the tyranny of the regime and the arrogance of Russia and Iran alone.”
He added, “The coming months will pose a threat to the Syrian revolution and the future of the opposition-controlled areas, whether in Idlib or even in the countryside of Aleppo, which is affiliated with Turkey. We hope that the United States would provide the military opposition with qualitative weapons that would enable it to repel any possible attack by Russia and the Syrian regime. If or when Turkey abandons us, we would have to coordinate with the United States and strengthen our relationship with it. Our complete dependence on Turkey in the past has pushed us further away from the West, especially the United States.”
Firas Faham, researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, tweeted Aug. 22, “It is very much expected that Russia will use the coming months [until the Turkish presidential elections] to put the maximum possible pressure on Turkey to push it to improve the relationship with the Syrian regime. Russia is fully aware of the objectives of the Turkish statements and believes they are to be employed inside Turkey, which proves that Russia wants to exert even more pressure by targeting the densely populated city of Idlib, which has witnessed calm since the March 2020 agreement.”
Former jihadist leader Saleh al-Hamwi also tweeted Aug. 22, “The Russian escalation is caused by Turkey's failure to resolve the HTS file after the Tehran summit, as [HTS leader Abu Mohammed] al-Golani insists on showing his control in Idlib, and this increases the pressure of the regime and Iran on Russia. But Russia will not take action until Turkey fulfills its promises regarding HTS. I am sure that Turkey's new rapprochement attempt with the regime will fail, but its loss will be great.”
Some believe that HTS’ presence in Idlib is used as a pretext for Russia to attack the area, but the latter claims it does not differentiate between the moderate opposition and the jihadist factions. Moscow, as well as the Syrian government, views all opposition factions, even liberal opposition figures, as “terrorists.”
Meanwhile, the opposition is currently going through a tense period as it is losing its main ally — Turkey — amid Turkish talk about seeking to turn the page on the dispute with the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian opposition is now betting on the Qatari role to seek rapprochement with the West. But it seems Qatar is remaining on the sidelines for the time being as it has yet to comment on the Turkish efforts toward rapprochement with the Syrian government.
In light of these political developments, the armed opposition does not currently have the military capabilities to repel a possible full-fledged government military operation in northwest Syria.