by Yochanan Visser
After completing the take-over of the region bordering Israel, the pro-Assad coalition has now set its sights on the ‘liberation’ of yet another strategically important region in Syria: the predominantly Sunni Muslim Idlib province in the north of the country.
Assad intends to retake Idlib, but that may not be as easy as he thinks.
“Now Idlib is our goal,” dictator Bashar al-Assad said after the ‘liberation’ of the regions adjacent to the Jordanian and Israeli border in the Daraa and Quneitra provinces in southern Syria.
"The military -- and it is at their discretion -- will decide priorities and Idlib is one of these priorities," he added, vowing to liberate the rest of Syria as well.
The ruthless Syrian dictator, furthermore, congratulated his forces for “moving from one achievement to another and from one victory to another in the face of systematic terrorism and its regional and international backers,” and claimed that they had managed to thwart “a Zionist-American plot” against his country.
After the Russian intervention in Syria and the Iranian-led attempt to secure the survival of the Assad regime, many Islamist rebels were transferred to Idlib from other areas in Syria under surrender deals negotiated by the Russians.
The rebels in Idlib - designated as a de-escalation zone under the so-called Astana agreement – used to receive backing from Turkey, which is occupying parts of the province but now tries to prevent Assad’s offensive by cracking down on the most militant rebel groups in the province.
Turkish dictator Recep Tayyip Erdogan has apparently decided to cooperate with the Russians in order to prevent a bloody battle.
That battle could harm Turkish interests in Syria and would bring Idlib under the control of the ‘Syrian army’ which is today an Iranian proxy force, according to Israeli Middle East expert Ehud Jaari.
“When people speak about the Syrian army, Assad’s army, there is no army. There are remnants of the once-huge army that he had,” the Arab affairs commentator of Israel's Channel 2 said, adding that Assad’s army is now a “myriad of militias” affiliated with Iran.
Iran, meanwhile, thinks recapturing Idlib is essential for stabilizing Assad’s rule over Syria and will have no problem liquidating the Sunni Islamist rebels there, who are referred to as Takfiri militants and terrorists by Iranian media and the Tehran regime.
Most of Idlib is currently under control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the organization for the Liberation of the Levant, a merger of Salafist Islamist rebel groups such as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (an Al Qaeda affiliate which formerly operated under the name Jabhat al-Nusra), Liwa al-Haq and Jaysh al-Sunna.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has already come under attack by unknown assailants in the past few days.
These attacks could be related to the Turkish attempt to stave off the offensive by the pro-Assad coalition after new talks in Astana seemed to indicate Russia prefers Turkish action against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the ISIS-affiliated groups in Idlib, over an Iranian-led crack-down on the Sunni Islamists in Idlib.
Three of the other rebel groups in Idlib have now formed a new 100,000 man strong fighting force in anticipation of the upcoming offensive by the pro-Assad coalition.
The new merger consists of the Syrian Liberation Front, the Suqour al-Sham Brigades and the National Front for the Liberation of Syria and will operate under the name Fadlallah al-Haji (National Front of Liberation).
The move is meant to unify the factions which are affiliated with the Free Syrian Army a Turkish-backed fighting force which consists of Sunni Arabs and Turkmen.
The Turkish backed rebels in Idlib feel betrayed by the Erdogan regime and some of them are reportedly trying to leave Syria before Assad’s forces start the offensive against them.
Troops of the pro-Assad coalition are currently amassing in northern Syria while the Turkish army has limited its preparations for the upcoming battle to the deployment of additional forces along the Turkish-Syrian border.
The strategy will be to cut the supply lines to the rebels and to isolate them from the rest of Syria.
“Victory will be achieved soon,” Assad predicted during a speech published by the Jeish al-Sha’ab (People's Army) magazine on Wednesday.
The upcoming battle in Idlib is not going to be a walk-over for Assad's army, however.
Much will depend on Russian air support to defeat the large concentration of rebel groups in Idlib and on how Erdogan will react whenever Assadj's crackdown on the Sunni Islamists begins.
The Turkish strongman spoke to Russian president Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of a summit in South Africa and reportedly begged him to rein in Assad because he fears a confrontation in Idlib between the Islamist rebels and the pro-Assad coalition could further destabilize the region.
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