by Jonathan Spyer
Syrian regime and Russian forces are preparing for an offensive into Idlib province in northwest Syria. The attack on Idlib is set to mark the final major action in the war between the Assad regime and the insurgency against it.
-- once Idlib is returned to the regime, the dynamic in Syria will conclusively shift – from one at least partially led by autonomous political-military organizations, to one entirely directed from above by sundry state interests,
Moscow has moved 10 warships and two submarines into the waters off the western coast of Syria. This represents the largest concentration of Russian naval forces since the beginning of Moscow’s direct intervention in the civil war in Syria in September 2015.
The regime, meanwhile, is dispatching ground forces from further south, as its forces complete a recent offensive against Islamic State fighters in the Sweida area.
Idlib is set to form the final chapter in a Russian-led strategy that commenced nearly three years ago. According to this approach, rebel-controlled areas were first bombed and shelled into submission and then offered the chance to “reconcile” – that is, surrender to the regime. As part of this process, those fighters who did not wish to surrender were given the option of being transported with their weapons to rebel-held Idlib.
This approach was useful for the regime side. It allowed the avoidance of costly last-stand battles by the rebels. It also contained within it the expectation that a final battle against the most determined elements of the insurgency would need to take place, once there was nowhere for these fighters to be redirected. That time is now near.
There are around 70,000 rebel fighters inside Idlib. The dominant factions among them are Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (the renamed Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria) and the newly formed, Turkish-supported Jaish al-Watani (National Army), which brings together a number of smaller rebel groups.
The presence of the Turkish-supported Jaish al-Watani among the Idlib rebels reflects the complex, broader political/diplomatic situation surrounding the upcoming Idlib offensive. The offensive will not mark the end of conflict in Syria. Rather, once Idlib is returned to the regime, the dynamic in Syria will conclusively shift – from one at least partially led by autonomous political-military organizations, to one entirely directed from above by sundry state interests, which make use of various militia groups as proxies.
As this dynamic emerges, it represents a particular dilemma for Turkey. Ankara in the early stages of the war abandoned a burgeoning relationship with the Assad regime to throw its full weight behind the Sunni Arab rebellion. It saw the insurgency (correctly) as one of a number of conservative Sunni Arab movements then sweeping the Middle East. The AKP government envisaged itself as the natural patron and leader of these movements. Unfortunately for the Turks, the Sunni Islamist wave was brief and has left little permanent imprint on the region.
With the entry of the Russians onto the Syrian battlefield, and the decision by the US not to offer major support to the rebels, the insurgency lost any hope of defeating the Assad regime.
Turkey then transferred its focus in Syria to two areas: preventing the Kurdish area of control in the northeast from extending across the 900-km. Syrian-Turkish border in its entirety, and, slightly more nebulously, preventing the complete defeat and destruction of the rebels, which if allowed to happen would represent a humiliating failure for the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The first goal was achieved in two stages: in August 2016, in Operation Euphrates Shield, the Turks established an area of control in northern Syria from Jarabulus to Azaz, leaving the Kurdish Afrin canton isolated. In January 2018, in the creatively named Operation Olive Branch, they then destroyed and occupied Afrin, thus creating an area of exclusive Turkish control, stretching from Jarabulus to Jandaris in the Aleppo Governorate.
The second goal appeared for a while to be progressing in a satisfactory way. The Turks have invested in administration and education in their area of control in northwest Syria. Signs in Turkish, Turkish-trained police, Turkish administration in schools and hospitals are all features of the “Euphrates Shield Zone.” The authorities there have even issued new ID cards for residents of the area, marked with the opposition flag and translation in Arabic and Turkish. The formation of the Jaish al-Watani forms a key element of this effort.
But this project is placed into question by the prospect of the regime offensive in Idlib. There are 3.5 million civilians in the province. Turkey fears the possibility that this offensive could generate a new rush of refugees for Turkey’s borders or into the Euphrates Shield Zone. Also, given Assad’s determination to reconquer Syria in its entirety, a successful Idlib offensive will surely be followed by pressure on the Turks to quit this zone. It would at that point constitute the last remaining barrier to Assad’s full reincorporation of northwest Syria.
But for Turkey to quit this area would be to accept the final and total eclipse of the Sunni Arab cause, and the clear and humiliating total defeat of Turkey’s aims. To do so while the PKK-associated Kurds retain a large de facto area of control east of the Euphrates would represent a double defeat.
Turkey is currently engaged in diplomacy to forestall this possibility. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu last week warned against a military operation in Idlib, saying it would be a disaster. Cavusoglu, notably, was speaking to reporters in Moscow, after meeting with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.
Russia is key here. A notional Moscow-brokered truce has been in place in Latakia, Idlib and Hama provinces for the last three weeks. But it is subject to daily violations by regime forces and seems likely to go the way of previous Russian-brokered agreements in other parts of Syria which preceded regime and Russian assaults.
Erdogan is due to travel to Iran on September 7, to meet with presidents Putin and Rouhani. The future of northwest Syria is set to dominate the discussions.
Why is the Russian position pivotal? Iran, of course, supports the reunification of Syria by the regime. Turkey clearly prefers the status quo. Russia, meanwhile, has broader interests. On the one hand, it is in alliance with the regime and Iran. On the other, Moscow has a clear interest in drawing the government in Ankara further away from its fraying connections with the US. Offering Turkey at least part of what it wants in northern Syria would be useful in this regard but would have a cost for Moscow’s relations with its allies. It is probable that Putin will seek some face-saving formula for Turkey. But the dilemma showcases the fragility of Russia’s current stance as the supreme arbiter in Syria, enjoying positive relations with all forces.
Erdogan will be seeking in Tehran to use the Russian desire to draw him away from NATO, and perhaps Iranian hopes that Ankara may act as an oil-sanctions buster for Iran after November, to salvage something of Ankara’s project in Syria.
As the Syrian revolution goes down to military defeat, the great game of the presidents and the diplomats over the ruins of the country is moving into high gear.
Jonathan Spyer is a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and a research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Strategic Studies.
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