To say that 2018 has been a good year for the Assad regime and its allies would be a major understatement, for outside of the areas held by the Kurdish dominated SDF and pockets of areas held by a diminished ISIS, the only remaining area of active opposition to the regime is rebel-held Idlib province. The reverse is true for the divided and myriad groups of the opposition, whom have been hammered into submission in southern Syria and Eastern Ghouta, with those unwilling to submit to Syrian government control bussed of to Idlib province. A concern of analysts and commentators of the Syrian War has been the impending government assault on Idlib province, which has loomed as a potential disaster ever since the regime and its allies began to reassert control over Syria. This has been prevented only by the campaigns to defeat the rebels elsewhere and take control of all of the country’s major cities. There is only one city outside of the SDF and Kurdish controlled areas remaining outside of regime control: Idlib. There is also little doubt as to what is going to happen next: a crushing assault on Idlib province.
There are two major concerns regarding the upcoming offensive, the first is the humanitarian impact, the second the danger of further escalation.
There are estimated to be some three million people in Idlib province, where there is also between 20,000-50,000 rebel fighters (estimates of rebels fighters are notoriously difficult), some of which are jihadist (Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Hurras al-Din), others that are backed by Turkey (the National Liberation Front), and many more foreign fighters, including those of the Turkistan Islamic Party. There has been infighting between them, with assassinations taking place, and it should be noted that treating them as a unified ‘opposition’, or attempting to reduce them to categories of ‘moderate’, ‘Islamist’, and ‘jihadist’ does not convey the complexity of the differences and relationships between the rebel groups. As has been the case throughout the war, the rebels are divided, while the regime and its allies work as a unified whole. This has allowed the regime and its allies to defeat individual rebel groups that control a given area or town and move on to the next. Whatever their stripe, the rebels within Idlib province include those that are hard-line jihadists or have refused to surrender elsewhere and opted to relocate to the area, knowing that there was a possibility of facing another offensive. A particularly disturbing development has been in the propaganda war that has accompanied the fighting, where the Assad regime and its Russian allies have disseminated allegations that the West plans to stage fake chemical attacks to discredit the regime. This is not only before an offensive that the regime and its allies have denied is being planned, but also a clumsy effort to deflect any blame from the regime should chemical weapons be deployed. The three million civilians in the area are faced with a crushing conventional assault similar to those that have taken place elsewhere in an effort to crush any resistance from hardened rebel fighters, with the denials for chemical weapons use already in place before their use, and nowhere for people to flee to. A summit between Russia, Iran and Turkey that took place this week has failed to alleviate concerns over the impending offensive into what is the last of four ‘de-escalation zones’, the others already having fallen to the regime. The chances of intervention on behalf of the population are slim, the US-backed Southern Front, once deemed as ‘moderate’ and eligible for western support, was left to the mercies of the regime and its allies earlier this year. A significant number of the rebels in Idlib province are jihadists that evince absolutely no support from the West, whose concerns are over the civilians about to be caught up in the fighting.
The second concern is that of a wider escalation of the conflict, one that has been a concern for years due to the complexity of the Syrian War and the foreign alliances and rivalries that are involved. The potential for the conflict to expand beyond Syria’s borders and become a regional or international conflagration has always been high, yet this has not happened and has seen regional and international powers deploy and support military forces within Syria. A brutal and shameful truth of the Syrian War thus far has been that a significant number of combatants fighting there are not Syrian and are guided by their own interests and values, while Syria has been destroyed as a consequence. As regards Idlib province, Turkey has observation posts there, backs many of the rebels, and Ankara is fiercely opposed to the Assad regime. It is also bitterly opposed to the Syrian Kurds and occupies swathes of northern Syria. Turkish political cooperation with Russia and Iran may well lead to a pragmatic withdrawal of any forces in Idlib but this is far from guaranteed and will leave the question of Turkish occupation of northern Syria unresolved. There is also the problem of the potential use of chemical weapons by the regime during its offensive. The regime has always denied any previous use of chemical weapons, despite damning evidence to the contrary. Previous alleged use by the regime very nearly led to direct western intervention and a Russian brokered agreement to remove the regime’s chemical weapons arsenal, US airstrikes, and then joint military action by the US, France and the UK. The western powers have generally, and controversially, refrained from direct military action against the Assad regime, with the exception of punishing alleged chemical weapons use. This has set a precedent should it occur in the future, although any action will be restricted to punishment and not removal of the regime, which most reluctantly accept is winning the war.
The dangers of an improbable wider escalation will be lost on the people who may be about to be hammered by a crushing and brutal offensive to seize control of Idlib province, the last remaining rebel-held territory. A humanitarian disaster looms, and there appears to be little that will stop it.
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Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator