Author: Zurab Batiashvili, Research Fellow, Rondeli Foundation
The latest events of the seven-year-long Syrian Civil War have unfolded in such a way that by fall 2018 the Assad regime and his allies (Russian Federation, Iran and Hezbollah) have managed to restore the control of the central Syria government on the majority of the country’s territory.
The main stronghold of resistance in Syria today is the Idlib province, situated in Northern Syria, near the Turkish border, where the forces opposed to the Assad regime have gathered. The Assad regime and its allies, on the other hand, have started their preparations for attacking this region, which is considered to be the concluding phase of the Syrian conflict.
The Situation in the Idlib Province
At the moment about 3-4 million people are living in the Idlib province (including over 1 million internally displaced persons from various Syrian regions). Large forces opposed to the Assad regime, about 70-80 thousand, are gathered here, belonging to various organizations, many of them opposed to one another. The situation is further complicated by the fact that apart from the moderate wings of the opposition, the province also hosts an organization that is considered to be terrorist, an Al-Qaeda affiliated Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which is the strongest military grouping in the region.
It should also be pointed out that the observation points of three countries participating in the Astana Process, Turkey, Iran and Russia, are also placed in the region, which further complicates conducting the expected military operation.
The Assad regime and its allies hope to cleanse the region of terrorists. Turkey has always asked for additional time, in order to disarm the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham forces or distance them from the moderate opposition. Now, as it would seem, the time given to Turkey is running out – additional forces have been moved towards the region in order to start the concluding attack.
In this regard, the trilateral summit (between Russia, Iran and Turkey) scheduled in Tehran on 7 September 2018, will be decisive, as the issue of Idlib province will be discussed on the highest level. Many things will depend on what the parties can or cannot agree on.
Possible Scenarios of Events Unfolding
The decision of restoring control over the Idlib province has already been made. The main question is – will this be done through peaceful means or will it require military confrontation?
In the case of a military confrontation, a huge bloodshed will probably result and we will have a humanitarian catastrophe on our hands. A large-scale attack on the Idlib province will definitely result in casualties both among the military forces, as well as among the civilian population. Part of the fighters (including those from the Caucasus) and the peaceful population will move towards Turkey. Such a development will put millions of people in the situation of a humanitarian catastrophe, also creating serious difficulties for the Turkish economy which is already mired in problems, as about four million Syrian refugees already live in the country.
It should be pointed out that the attack on the Idlib province will not be an easy venture for several reasons:
- Tens of thousands of battle-hardened fighters, who do not plan on surrendering, are gathered in the region;
- The Idlib province is larger in terms of territory than East Ghouta or Daraa, where the Syrian army and its allies conducted successful military operations in recent months;
- Idlib has its back to Turkey and unlike East Ghouta and Daraa, is not encircled. Hence, in the case of receiving actual help from Turkey, the level of resistance will increase;
- Additionally, Turkish military is also represented in Idlib – in recent days Turkey moved additional manpower and arms in the region. Any attack on its positions might end with unforeseen results.
In the case of negotiation-agreement scenario, Turkey manages to persuade Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham forces to disarm. Part of the fighters of the organization move to the moderate opposition forces and the Astana Process continues. The majority of the territory controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham forces will go to the Assad regime, whilst the rest will remain under de-facto Turkish control. In this case, the situation will be frozen and the process will move to the political dimension. However, in this case it is not entirely clear what will happen to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham fighters.
Interests of the Parties Involved in the Conflict
- Syrian interests – Damascus wishes to restore control over the entire territory of the country as soon as possible. It hopes that after resolving the Idlib problem it will also manage to persuade the Kurds in order to fully unify the country. Hence, it is the most motivated party to start a decisive attack towards Idlib in the nearest future.
- Turkish interests – Ankara does not wish to get new crowds of refugees and fighters (including terrorists) on the Turkish territory. The priority for Ankara is to fight against YPG (pro-Kurdish People’s Protection Units) in Syria, which it designates as a terrorist organization. Hence, it will attempt to hinder the legal establishment of a Kurdish entity (autonomous region) on the territory of Syria with all its might. At the same time Ankara fears that after the Idlib province, the Assad regime will attack Turkish occupied Afrin and Jarabulus provinces (they might even get the YPG to help them in this), which could lead to irreversible results for Turkey.
- Iranian interests – Tehran wants the central Syrian government to restore control over the entire territory of the country and plans to create military bases there, which Israel considers to be the main threat, periodically bombing Iranian positions in Syria.
- Russian interests – Moscow wants the Syrian conflict to be concluded in such that will help it present itself as a world class player, capable of resolving global conflicts. At the same time, Moscow does not wish to have conflict with Turkey, which it is encouraging to go against the Americans. Hence, it will be acceptable for Russia to resolve the Idlib problem through negotiations as well as (if no other way remains) through military action. Iranian bases in Syria are unacceptable to Moscow, as it fears that in such a scenario, Iran might have more influence over Syria than Russia. It is also in Moscow’s interests for the North Caucasian fighters to not be able to return to their homeland. Consequently, it prefers destroying them in Syria or leaving them there long-term.
- Western interests – the West wishes to destroy Daesh and other terrorist organizations currently in Syria. Changing the Assad regime is less of a principled issue for it. The West (especially in European capitals) does not want to have new refugee waves heading towards Europe. At the same time, they condemn the cases of the usage of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime. In the case of repetition of such facts or a large-scale attack against Idlib, they will have to take the public opinions in their respective countries into account and bomb the Syrian positions. Also, the nature of the Western response measures will depend on the scale and nature of the attacks themselves (for example, whether or not the chemical weapons will be used and what the number of casualties will be). Western counter measures could include both military action (bombings) as well as economic steps (toughening the sanctions).
At the same time, in the case of bombing the Syrian positions, the West will try its best to avoid confrontation with the Kremlin.
It is a notable fact that the United States still retains positions on YPG controlled territories, in order to use them as bases in various directions (Iran, Iraq, Israel defense obligation, etc.) should the necessity arise.
As for the issue of the expected attack on the Idlib province itself, the US President, Donald Trump, has already stated his position about this through Twitter, on 4 September 2018. His statement says: “President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province. The Russians and Iranians would be making a grave humanitarian mistake to take part in this potential human tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. Don’t let that happen!”
Despite this warning, the Russian aviation bombed Idlib on the same day and continued small-scale bombings as a warning the next day as well.
- Trump’s warning towards Russia and Russia’s reaction to it shows that there still is no agreement between Washington and Moscow about the Syrian issue;
- In the case of a full-scale attack on the Idlib province we might get a previously unseen humanitarian catastrophe, which will negatively influence the neighboring regions, as well as countries;
- In the case of another large mass of refugees moving from Syria, they will be followed by a big part of the fighters as well. This will increase terrorist threats in Turkey, as well as in other regions (Europe, Caucasus, Ukraine and so on), where a part of the fighters will try to enter. In this case, the West will have a sharply negative attitude towards Russia, Syria and Iran;
- Caucasian fighters entering Turkey will naturally be tempted to return to their homeland, which will put Georgia in their sphere of interest, as was the case with Chataev and his team.