With new political dynamics developing Assad eyes Idlib

By Manish Rai

As the world and regional geopolitical actors’ attention is mainly focused on the Hamas-Israel conflict, Syrian President Dr. Bashar Al-Assad takes advantage of this distraction and escalates another conflict in Idlib, Northwest Syria. Right now, any humanitarian crisis because of this escalation will largely go unnoticed.

Since the beginning of October, cities and towns in north-western Syria are witnessing fierce attacks from the Syrian government and Russian forces, the most intense in nearly three years. Over dozens of civilians, including children and women, have been killed and hundreds have been injured, according to a Syrian volunteer emergency rescue group. Early in Syria’s 2011 rebellion against the government of President Assad the north-western governorate of Idlib and its surroundings were among the first areas nationwide to take up arms against the regime.

For decades, Idlib has been inhabited by communities which were against the Damascus government. After Russia’s 2015 military intervention in support of the regime uprooted the rebels from other parts of the country. As a result of this Idlib became the opposition’s last real bastion.

But gradually Syrian moderate opposition became marginalised and Jihadists thrived and turned Idlib into their stronghold. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly known as al-Nusra Front, once an al-Qaeda branch in Syria has totally consolidated its hold on Idlib province and literally operates as the de-facto state in the tiny statelet it created.

After a cease-fire deal for north-western Syria was reached between Ankara and Moscow in March 2020, the truce was largely preserved, occasionally violated by Syrian government forces.

This most recent escalation by the government forces comes in retaliation for a deadly drone attack on a military academy in Homs on October 5. The attack took place during a graduation ceremony for cadets, killing at least 120 people, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an organization that monitors the Syrian conflict. Government forces responded by shelling Idlib and later launched a military operation.

It seems that the Syrian government will continue its operations. As now it looks more like an attempt to retake the rebel province rather than just a response for an attack. Idlib is strategically important to the government. It borders Turkey to the north and straddles highways running south from the city of Aleppo to the capital Damascus, and west to the Mediterranean city of Latakia.

Moreover, Jihadist safe haven in Idlib is an obvious counterterrorism worry as Jihadists might use Idlib to plot attacks on government control areas. Damascus thinks Idlib under the control of extremist elements remains a ticking time bomb that arguably poses a greater long-term threat to Syria’s stability.

The Syrian government is of the view that this is the right time to exploit the world’s preoccupation with the war in Gaza. Also, one of the objectives to escalate operations in northwest Syria, is to exert pressure on Turkey and allied armed groups to open the international road between Syria and Turkey. The M4 and M5 highways, which both pass through Idlib governorate, are among the most crucial arteries for international trade in Syria.

The Syrian government was refraining from launching an all-out offensive to take Idlib back because of Turkey’s military presence and support to anti-government forces in the province. For many years Turkey was acting as a guarantor to its allied militias in Idlib as its priority was to prevent a wave of refugees. Turkey is already hosting 3.6 million Syrians, and rising public discontent has forced it to stop accepting anymore Syrian refugees. To serve this purpose, Turkey wanted to create safe zones for refugees in Idlib. Hence, it decided to have its own military presence in Idlib to prevent the Syrian regime from assaulting this last province controlled by the opposition forces.

But now this calculus is changing. Turkey recently launched an offensive against Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the false pretext of attacking PKK support base in North-East Syria. Turkey’s main priority now in Syria is the suppression of the Kurdish forces. To achieve this objective, Turks are willing to negotiate and cooperate with the Syrian government.

It should be remembered that previously the Turks and Syrian government in 1998 signed the Adana Agreement, which allowed Turkish forces to go up to 5 kms into Syrian territory to chase Kurdish insurgents. Back in the year 2020 as per the report of a pro-Iran media outlet, Turks and Syrian officials discussed renewing the Adana agreement with certain amendments, which would allow Turkey to extend its reach up to 35 km into Syrian territory in return for Ankara handing over the northwest of the country to the regime and ceasing its support for the opposition.

In the present scenario, it looks like there is a high possibility that Ankara and Damascus could reach some kind of consensus on the line of Adana agreement. And if this fructifies, the trade-off will be that Assad forces carry on their march on to Northwest Syria and Turks do the same in Northeast. These changing dynamics have made the Syrian President more confident and that’s why he is carrying on with his bold operations in the Northwest.

(Author is a columnist for Middle-East and Af-Pak region and Editor of the geo-political news agency ViewsAround can be reached at [email protected])