ISTANBUL – The big Syrian government offensive to recapture rebel-held Idlib province—which the United Nations fears could cause the deaths of thousands and displace a million civilians—is on hold for want of forces on the ground to coordinate with Russian air power, according to military leaders in the Syrian opposition.
The Syrian regime has at most 25,000 troops based in the region, including about 5,000 reinforcements, some of whom are conscripts drawn from surrendered rebel enclaves, whose reliability in battle remains to be tested. They will face more than 100,000 motivated defenders, many of whom were forced there from other regions and have nowhere else to go.
But the critical missing element is Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias, which had served as President Bashar al-Assad’s ground force in Aleppo and the Damascus region after its army had largely collapsed due to desertions. There is no sign these militias are preparing for battle, and Iran appears to have little interest in joining in a bloody encounter with high casualties.
“We can say the battle of Idlib has been postponed,” said Col. Fateh Hassoun, a defected Syrian army officer who has represented rebel interests at talks among Turkey, Russia, and Iran in the so-called Astana process. “Russia needs a ground partner for its warplanes,” he said.
With the regime unable to provide the forces, and Iran apparently uninterested in the fight, the only other source of fighters might be the Kurds, but the People’s Protection Force or YPG is functioning as the U.S. ground component in the battle against the Islamic State in eastern Syria.
Columb Strack, a Middle East analyst for HIS Market (the parent company of Jane’s defense publications), concurred that the offensive may well have been delayed. “It’s very likely to happen. It’s just a question of when,” he told The Daily Beast. And when it does, “it will be a slow-burning thing,” given the discrepancy in the size of the forces. “It will be step-by-step, retaking villages, one at a time, relying on indiscriminate airstrikes to displace or force their opponents to surrender.”
Idlib is likely to be the last major chapter in the Syrian war, which began with a national uprising against Assad in March 2011, and it still has the potential for worse carnage than anything seen so far in a struggle that has cost hundreds of thousands of lives and mass migration flows destabilizing the region and creating major political problems in Western Europe.
President Donald Trump last week tweeted an appeal to Syria, Russia, and Iran not to proceed with the offensive. “President Bashar al-Assad of Syria must not recklessly attack Idlib Province,” he said. “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!”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that an offensive could produce “a sea of blood.”
There are some 3.3 million people in the province, about half of them displaced from elsewhere in Syria, and an enormous proportion are dependent on outside humanitarian aid. As noted, there are at least 100,000 anti-government fighters, a fraction of whom are radical extremists affiliated with Al Qaeda.
Russia’s stated reason for deploying its air force in support of a Syrian government offensive is to destroy the Al Qaeda faction.
Turkey, which has a 60-mile border with Idlib, has become guarantor of a “de-confliction” zone in Idlib based on an agreement with Russia and Iran one year ago, and has been actively trying to negotiate with the Islamists to reduce their profile dramatically, thereby removing a major excuse for a military intervention.
Turkey, long a primary supporter of the anti-government rebels, has a solid record as a donor of humanitarian aid, and is currently hosting 3.5 million refugees in its territory. It fears an all-out offensive will drive millions more to its border.
The strongest Islamist faction in Idlib now calls itself Hei’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and says it is no longer affiliated with Al Qaeda, but it’s still listed as a terrorist group, and roughly half the 10,000 fighters in its ranks are foreign volunteers. Today the main Al Qaeda affiliate is Hurras Al-Din, a far smaller group of fighters that broke off from HTS, and is now locked in a bitter confrontation with HTS.
HTS has rejected Erdogan’s appeal to dissolve itself, and now about the only hope for getting rid of Hurras Al-Din peacefully is to give its members a safe exit from the province.
At summit talks in Tehran Friday, Erdogan pleaded with Russian President Vladimir Putin to announce a cease-fire to allow more time for Turkish officials to convince HTS to dissolve itself and arrange for an exit for Hurras Al-Din. But Putin rebuffed him, and together with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Erdogan and Putin instead issued a joint call for the extremists to lay down their arms.
But Russia’s claim that it is fighting “terrorism” may well be a pretext for a campaign meant to extirpate all armed opposition to its client Assad. Almost from the day Putin sent his air force into Syria in September 2015 the targets have been mainly moderate rebel forces, hospitals, schools, and civilian housing.
At the Tehran talks, Putin acknowledged that “a lot of civilians” live in Idlib, but he said fighters from terror groups who fled as Russia and the regime reconquered rebel-held territories near Damascus and in southern Syria now are “all in Idlib” and they have “plenty of weapons.” He said “the most difficult task will be neutralizing them” and that “terror groups use civilians as human shields… they always do.” He pledged that Russia would make sure there was an escape route for civilians—but in fact the only place Idlib residents can flee to is Turkey.
Special U.N. Envoy Staffan de Mistura noted Friday that “98.8 percent of the people of Idlib” are civilians, and protecting them “is our top priority.”
The bombings the Assad regime has carried out in the cities and towns of Idlib province almost daily for the past 10 days rarely hit listed terrorist groups. According to Ramesh Rajasingham, an official of the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, "In four days, four medical facilities reportedly shelled and barrel bombed rendering many ambulances and one hospital fully out of service.” In a tweet Monday, he reminded the parties to the conflict to uphold international humanitarian law, indicating these bombings are potential war crimes.
Destroying hospitals and medical facilities was a hallmark of Assad regime and Russian tactics during the reconquest of Aleppo in 2016 and in many other locations. The apparent aim has been to weaken and destroy the moderate rebel factions and induce panic among civilians, who realize that without access to emergency medical care, they have little hope of surviving the bombs, rockets, and shells that are rained upon them.