Following the Syrian regime’s recapture of Aleppo in December last year, Idlib was expected to be the next battleground city. The north-western province, which has been in the hands of rebels since May 2016, is now the strongest rebel enclave in Syria with the arrival of thousands of fighters from Aleppo and other parts of the war-torn country under the Russian- and Turkish-sponsored deals with the Assad's government.
So for being now Syria’s largest pool of rebel fighters belonging to almost all opposition forces, Idlib is expected to be the Syrian regime’s next target with the hope of ensuring a ‘comfortable’ grip of the country's major cities by dislodging rebels from their strongholds and keeping them scattered in minor opposition pockets here and there across the country.
After the recapture of eastern Aleppo, the Syrian army, backed by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite forces, has succeeded in expanding its territorial control over major cities. Except for ISIS-controlled Raqa and rebel-held Idlib, all other major Syrian cities are now under the control of the government forces. Southern Daraa, the birthplace of the 2011 uprising, is somehow divided between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the government. But the Syrian government’s control is still over the major cities as almost entirely all the countryside towns and villages, even in Damascus and Aleppo, are still controlled by the FSA and other opposition forces and that’s what makes the presence of rebel fighters in Idlib a worrying matter for the regime.
From a political perspective, the Syrian regime cannot begin a military operation in Idlib neither now, nor in the near future with preparations underway for a Russian-sponsored Syrian peace process in AstanaRaed Omari
Militarily speaking, it is extremely difficult for the Assad regime to launch a large-scale attack against rebel-held Idlib. In the recent military campaign against Aleppo, the government was reported as having deployed approximately 40,000 soldiers who will be stationed there to ensure a sustainable grip over the densely populated northern city. In order to retake the massive rebel territory in Idlib - at least the city - the regime needs to pull troops out of Aleppo to fight a guerrilla war through the city and its countryside where they will be faced by the highly efficient groups Jabhat Fatah Al Sham, the former al-Qaeda affiliate, and the hardline Ahrar Al Sham. To avoid the risky consequences of deploying ground troops in Idlib, the Syrian regime would need to resort to intensified aerial bombardment which would mean further widespread destruction of residential areas and the resources are not available. Plus the world cannot afford to see another large-scale destruction and suffering in Idlib like that in Aleppo.
Since the beginning of the conflict, the Syrian regime has pushed hard to retake the border cities, first in Daraa, on the border with Jordan, then Homs, on the border with Lebanon, and lately Aleppo, on the border with Turkey. Idlib is also of strategic importance given its closeness to Turkey and the coastal province of Latakia but the recent agreements between the Assad’s ally Russia and Turkey have had an immense impact on alleviating the strategic importance of Idlib to the regime.
Russia’s recent announcement that it had begun reducing its military presence in Syria, which has had its undeniable contributions to turning the tide in favor of Assad, was also an announcement to the world that it would no longer support large-scale military operations in Syria as it did in Aleppo and this would complicate any regime’s mission in Idlib.
From a political perspective, the Syrian regime cannot begin a military operation in Idlib neither now, nor in the near future with preparations underway for a Russian-sponsored Syrian peace process in Astana. Unlike the previous three Geneva peace conferences on Syria, when the regime’s military operations were on while the warring parties were meeting, the Russians seem to be tough on preserving the ceasefire in Syria definitely with the aim of proving their success in Kazakhstan as opposed to the Western-backed peace efforts in Switzerland.
Idlib has turned into a densely populated city after the arrival of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians and the nearly 30,000 evacuated rebel fighters and their families from Aleppo. According to the UN, Idlib now has around 200,000 inhabitants and this number is expected to increase if the north-western province becomes out of reach or risky to reach by the regime. Idlib for the Syrian regime will be then like Gaza for Israel: a nightmare, attacks from time to time, blockades, destruction and large-scale suffering.
Raed Omari is a Jordanian journalist, political analyst, parliamentary affairs expert, and commentator on local and regional political affairs. His writing focuses on the Arab Spring, press freedoms, Islamist groups, emerging economies, climate change, natural disasters, agriculture, the environment and social media. He is a writer for The Jordan Times, and contributes to Al Arabiya English. He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @RaedAlOmari2