Full-fledged military escalation looms large in Idlib

Developments in southern Idlib suggest that a five-month truce could soon come to an end with a fresh regime offensive to capture Syria’s last rebel stronghold.

al-monitor Smoke billows following airstrikes and shelling on the city of Binnish in Syria's rebel-controlled northwestern Idlib province on Aug. 3, 2020. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that Russian airstrikes before dawn killed three people from the same family.  Photo by OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP via Getty Images.

août 6, 2020

The fragile cease-fire in Idlib —- in place since early March when a Turkish-Russian deal ended a violent escalation — seems to be teetering on the brink of collapse amid growing signs that the Syrian regime is gearing up for a fresh thrust to capture the rebel stronghold.

The truce has largely held despite sporadic violations, but appears doomed mainly because southern Idlib remains far from being stabilized. In their meeting in Moscow on March 5, the presidents of Turkey and Russia agreed to establish a security corridor 6 kilometers (nearly 4 miles) deep on either side of the M4 highway to reopen the key road to traffic. Turkish and Russian forces have conducted more than 25 joint patrols along the route since then, but failed to fully take it under control. The road has yet to reopen to transport and trade. The failure of the plan owes to radical elements who skillfully disguise themselves among the region’s people and enjoy the support of some locals. 

Under its deal with Moscow, Ankara promised to moderate the armed rebels in Idlib and purge the region from the radical ones. But despite Ankara’s efforts and the joint patrols, the radicals remain in the region. 

For almost a month, the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been increasing their military buildup to Idlib from the southeast and Deir ez-Zor. Many see this as the omen of a forthcoming onslaught to purge radical factions from the Ghab Plain and Zawiyah Mountain, which dominate southern Idlib, and establish a firm grip over the cleared area.

In what appeared as the harbinger of an impending ground offensive, Russian jets targeted several areas in northeastern Latakia province and at Binnish in eastern Idlib on Aug. 2-3, coupled with artillery fire and rockets targeting the Ghab Plain and Zawiyah Mountain. Russian and regime forces have frequently used air and artillery attacks to pave the way for ground offensives and force civilians to flee. 

A potential ground operation to secure the M4 highway might unfold in three stages.

  • The operation would surely start from the south and aim to cleanse and hold the Ghab Plain and Zawiyah Mountain in its first stage. Without cleansing and securing the Ghab Plain and Zawiyah Mountain, Assad’s forces cannot advance farther to the north.
  • In the second stage, the operation is likely to expand northwest to Akrad Mountain and Jisr al-Shughur, rather than to the northeast. By capturing Jisr al-Shughur, Assad forces would aim to cut the radicals’ connection to Turkey. Unless they cut this route, which the militants use for logistical, financial and recruitment purposes, the regime forces cannot fully seal the border with Turkey and initiate siege warfare. The capture of Jisr al-Shughur would be critical also to secure the high ground dominating the northeast of Latakia.
  • In the third and final stage, the offensive is likely to expand northeast to Arbain Mountain and Ariha, a direction that leads directly to Idlib city. Arbain Mountain is a critical area dominating the south of Idlib city, while Ariha is a key town connecting Idlib to the south and southeast.

Will Turkey acquiesce to such an operation? Arguably, Moscow might persuade Ankara to keep calm, yet the Ariha-Saraqeb axis is critical in this respect. Turkish countermoves along this axis — highly likely in the first stage to disrupt and slow down the Russian-backed Assad forces — would mean that the offensive has started without Ankara’s consent. In such a scenario, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham — the dominant armed group in Idlib — and its allies are likely to mount counterattacks along the Ariha-Saraqeb axis with Turkish support.

Local sources contacted by Al-Monitor say they believe Ankara might acquiesce to regime forces taking control of the Ghab Plain and Zawiyah Mountain in return for certain gains in Libya, where Turkey needs tacit Russian support at the very least. This scenario is the biggest concern in Idlib’s rebel-held areas because, once this line of defense falls, there is no other high ground to shield Idlib city. 

For Ankara, meanwhile, the real concern appears to be the prospect of regime forces advancing to the second and third stages described above, emboldened by a successful completion of an assault on the Ghab Plain and Zawiyah Mountain. 

The radicals’ retreat from those two areas would mean the automatic fall of a very mountainous and well-defended pocket. This would be a huge setback for the armed rebels in Idlib because, as a result, the western front of Jisr al-Shughur and the eastern front of Ariha would be easily separated, facilitating the Assad forces’ capture of the southern high ground dominating Idlib city.

Losing Zawiyah Mountain and the Ghab Plain — an area with only two major roads — would leave the rebels totally exposed to indirect fire by regime forces, including with artillery, howitzer and multiple rocket launchers, as well as massive air bombardments. This could force the militants to retreat northward to positions near Akrad Mountain without much resistance. 

Once those objectives are achieved, a brief cease-fire of one or two months is likely to ensue, allowing Assad’s forces to prepare to march to the south of Jisr al-Shughur for the second stage and then to Akrad Mountain and Ariha for the third one. 

All in all, Idlib appears headed for a critical juncture in September and October. Among those on edge are the 1.3 million civilians in Idlib city, who keep an eye both on the south, from where the regime forces would come, and on the north, where the Turkish border is their route for escape.

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