Scenarios Ahead of Idlib in Syria

Syrian opposition forces after controlling the city of Ariha, rural Idlib- May 2015 (Omar Haj Qadour AFP)

Syrian opposition forces after controlling the city of Ariha, rural Idlib- May 2015 (Omar Haj Qadour AFP)


As Assad’s forces are almost done finalizing the Southern Syria dimension of the state’s equation, all eyes are now on Idlib governorate, the most prominent opposition-held area, the only one. Analysis and inquiries gape at its destiny, which swings between two options; a military operation scenario, resembling all the battles that the Syrian regime has launched against the opposition-controlled areas backed by Russia or a new phase that a map marks, which Turkey, in particular, will be drawing. 

A number of points distinguish Idlib governorate from the rest of the opposition-held areas in Syria; it was turned into a humanitarian reservoir, after it incubated thousands of civilians and militants who were internally displaced, the latest waves came from the northern countryside of Homs and before it from the surrounding of the capital Damascus. Idlib is also the headquarter of “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham”, which international actors in Syria classify as a “terrorist” group.

Civilians in Idlib are today worried and scared, as they understand that any military operation on the part of the Syrian regime will, for sure, correspond to shelling intensification by the Russian air force, a policy followed by Russians since their intervention in Syria to achieve territorial gains.

The situation’s ambiguity is enhanced with the near end of the “de-escalation” agreement that included the governorate last year.

The Brigadier General Ahmed Berri, former head of the opposition’s delegation in “Astana” Talks, said that Idlib’s part of the agreement ends on September 19, while, so far, there are not any clear indications to the area’s future following the agreement’s end.

Controlling Idlib, on March 28, 2015, was a military shock to the Syrian regime, for it was the second governorate to break out of its control after Raqqa. It accordingly became to be seen as one of the critical achievements by the Syrian revolution’s military wing, amidst expectations that it will be turned into a geographical base for launching the military operations that exceed the governorates administrative borders.

Reasons that Rule Out the “Incursion”

Different developments were witnessed by the governorate in the past a few weeks, especially following the “Astana4” deal, which divided it into three pockets, the first is controlled by Russian-backed Assad’s forces and allied militias and referred to as east of the railroad; the second will supposedly be run by Turkey, as it is located near the borders; the third is a demilitarized zone, falling between the two other pockets.

However, the terms of the deal, active so far, have not yet been clarified, specifically those relating to fighting “Tahrir al-Sham”, which the factions refused to fight in the latest rounds and abstained from disclosing the coordinates to its location, as Brigadier General Berri has told Enab Baladi.

The Brigadier General, head of the opposition’s “Astana4” delegation, explained that the Russians have asked the opposition’s delegation to participate in the fight against “Tahrir al-Sham” in Idlib and to provide its coordinates. In case, these demands were not met, Russia hinted that it will intervene in Idlib on “its own way” which the delegation objected to, refusing to hand over the coordinates of the factions under the “Free Army”.

What Berri has referred to might be the Syrian regime’s loophole, through which it can start a military operation backed by Russia.  The Lieutenant Colonel Fares Bayoush, a former leader in the “Free Army”, eliminated this option, believing that Idlib is encircled with a belt of weapons and is difficult to approach, as it might burn those threatening to come close to it.

Bayoush told Enab Baladi that the indicators about the governorate today point to a “phase of stability” based on a number of factors, the first of which is the displacement waves which Idlib has been hosting in last months, in addition to its being the final area to incubate the people who have been displaced from their areas. Concerning foreign fighters, their destiny has not yet been clearly defined by the actor states.

The leader believes that the governorate’s future lies at the hands of Turkey, with the possible participation of other States for a number of years until a political agreement throughout Syria is figured out.

Following the beginning of the negotiations addressing Southern Syria in the past a few days, a voice recording of one of the “Free Army” leaders in Daraa spread, in which he said that Russia has warned them of leaving the area to Idlib, as it will suffer a “holocaust” when the “de-escalation” agreement ends in next September.

The threat, for some analysts, came as a confirmation that Russia will be following a military method in Idlib, and it will head towards it after finalizing the Southern Syria file, including the two governorates of Daraa and Quneitra.

According to Bayoush, Idlib is wealthy of several factors that set it apart from the rest of the areas that were compelled to sign “surrender agreements” with the regime; Ghouta, for example, was for years besieged. Southern Syria, however, was a matter of interest specifically for being close to Israel, which played a “fundamental role” in the deal that ended with handing the area over to the Syrian regime, to which several states contributed.


Turkey Has Either of Tow Options

Upon speaking of Idlib, Turkey, a neighbor state, could not be ignored, which in the past a few months has installed 12 “supervision points” along the governorate’s eastern and western strip, under last year’s “Astana” deal, as it is the side to depend on in drawing the governorate’s future and affording protection. Turkey has lately stressed this through its Minister of Foreign Affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu who threatened to pull out of the “de-escalation” agreement if the regime is to launch an offensive against the governorate with Russia’s support.

The Turkish statements about Idlib subsided when the first involved in the state presidential and parliamentary elections, contrary to the days that preceded the elections, while it continued enhancing the supervision points it installed with military vehicles. There is also the latest telecommunication towers and concrete blocks it admitted to the area, in addition to the medical points, makeshift hospitals, it constructed and airstrips it is building.

Would Turkey stand in the face of Idlib’s incursion? Will it militarily interfere as it did in the northern countryside of Aleppo? These questions are viral toady, while a counter narrative on the part of the Syrian regime stresses the proximity of the military operation.

According to Ismail Kaya, informed of the Turkish affairs, Ankara is today faced with a fundamental entitlement, represented by arriving at a final understanding with Russia about Idlib or combating any overall military offensive against it, the worst of the possible scenarios, which Turkey does not wish to undertake.

Despite the fact that the upcoming phase’s agreements between Turkey and Russia are not clear or overt, Kaya told Enab Baladi that Turkey is now facing tow evils; it has either to make practical on ground military steps to fight “Tahrir al-Sham” or to combat any massive military attack, which might lead to massacres and hundreds of deaths, in addition to the threat of three million civilians’ escape to the borders.

Turkey played the major role in the formation of the “National Front for Liberation” which receives its military and monetary support. Through it, Turkey is trying to start a new military structure in Idlib.

Last February, Enab Baladi got hold of information stating that Turkey is taking action to draw a new military structure of Idlib’s factions, emulating what it did in the areas of the “Euphrates Shield”, northern Aleppo.

Back then, three military sources told Enab Baladi that the “Free Army” factions, functioning in Idlib, have received a financial support from the Turkish government as a substitute for the American funding, in a step towards the formation of a new “National Army” after the spread of the Turkish supervision points. The army is expected to enter military confrontations to eliminate the hegemony of “Tahrir al-Sham” in the governorate, in case it refused to dissolve itself entirely.

A Feared American Intervention

These are the two choices which Turkey is likely to face. However, it will have also to deal with the outcome of the summit that will join the American President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, in Helsinki. The Syrian file will be a centerpiece of the summit’s discussions, in addition to the Iranian presence in Syria.

To the day, Idlib’s file is run by the three guarantor states to the “de-escalation” agreement alone, Russia, Iran and Turkey, alienating the United States of America which had the greatest weight in Southern Syria, in addition to the eastern areas which the “Syrian Democratic Forces” control.

A source from the Syrian opposition, requested that he stays anonymous, that America has not yet undertaken any step to be considered an official intervention in Idlib’s file, believing that its activity might be a step to impose pressure on Turkey to force it take it hands off the governorate according to a census with Russia that might be reached in the coming summit.

The source has also told Enab Baladi that Turkey will not be able to face the Russians and Americans in case they have reached a deal that might end with a military operation that has the ability to eliminate the opposition’s power in preparation for the political solution’s phase that has been advertised since early 2018.

The source, relating to all the scenarios, did not preclude that Turkey might retreat from stopping the governorate’s incursion, especially if it is to be pressured by the borders’ issue, which the Kurdish forces control from the city of Manbij to the Iraqi borders.


What Options Do the Factions Have?

According to all that is mentioned above, the factions’, active in Idlib, current state cannot be separated from the governorate’s complete future, in addition to their preparations which aim to combat any offensive on the part of the Syrian regime and its Russian ally or to enter the new phase that Turkey might impose.

“Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham” is the largest and most prominent faction in the area, alongside the “Syrian Liberation Front”, formed of “Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement” and the “Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya”, in addition to the “National Front for Liberation” which lately have joined all the factions under the “Free Army”.

The governorate has lately witnessed confrontations between the “Syrian Liberation Front” and “Tahrir al-Sham”, which led to the death of dozens of the two sides elements. The fighting ended with an agreement that stopped the hostilities which covered the majority of the governorate’s areas, reaching the western countryside of Aleppo, the headquarters of “Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement”.

Facing this reality, several questions are raised about the factions’ current military capabilities, which might be a wining card that has the ability to change the equation of Northern Syria, unlike what happened on other fronts, especially in Eastern Ghouta.

The latest confrontations in the eastern countryside of Idlib have the clues needed to constitute the complete image of the area’s factions, for Assad’s forces and allied militias managed to control wide areas and reached the outskirts of the city of Saraqib, the most prominent of the governorate’s cities.

Assad’s forces’ progress followed the retreat of “Tahrir al-Sham” from certain areas without fighting, which attributed the withdrawal to the “Free Army’s” factions’ retreat from the fronts where they were active, in addition to other factions abstinence from participating in the confrontations, including “Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement”.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, the military analyst and Colonel Ahamad Rahal said that none of the factions in Idlib have the ability to be counted on, in addition to the lacking military powers which were the reason for Assad’s forces’ control over the eastern countryside and parts of the southern rural parts.

What also lacks is the independent decision, engineering preparations and operation centers. According to Rahal, Daraa factions enjoyed military power and abilities that are fife times greater than that of Idlib’s factions. However, “treason” and pressure have led to the Syrian regime’s control over the entire area.

Naji al-Mustafa, the spokesperson of the “National Front for Liberation” said that the issue of an attack on Idlib is to the day ambiguous, but he pointed to the military factions’ lack of trust in the Russian side that “shows no respect to any treaty or agreement”.

He also told Enab Baladi that the “Free Army” factions are in the meantime preparing for all possibilities and are undertaking a military preparation of the forces, initiating the defense lines in terms of defense fortifications and setting up defense and attack plans.

They are also working on unifying the efforts of all the factions under a single operation room to distribute the tasks among the forces positioned at all the fronts.


Four Points of Focus

During the interview, the military analyst Ahmad Rahal spoke of four points that the factions have to focus on in the upcoming phase, on top of these is the protection of civilians and finding means to protect them from the aerial shelling that the Syrian regime and Russia might start at the beginning of their military operation if it were to happen.

The second point relates to the construction of operation rooms that join all the military formations in Idlib, in addition to similar operation rooms in rural Aleppo, Jisr al-Shughur city, the coastal area and the al-Ghab plain, the western countryside of Hama.

The former rooms must be linked through a single leadership, to enhance power and support as to cover all the fronts completely. Hereby, al-Rahal said that the factions have to define the responsibilities of each of the military formations based on the fronts where they function, as to be held accountable if violations are committed.

The third point has to do with the defense lines and the manner to reinforce them, especially since the Syrian regime’s operations were lately comducted by the “Tiger Forces” alone, led by  the Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan, known for applying the scorched earth policy to achieve progress without resorting to confrontations.

Al-Rahal added that the factions must reinforce their defense lines at stages and following different structures to withstand.

The fourth and last point relates to making use of the scenarios that happened in Southern Syria and the eastern countryside of Idlib, where the military pressure was practiced through aerial bombardment, according to which the factions should prepare traps and depend on small groups war.


The “Islamic State” Enters the Landscape with Security Operations

Among the key developments which Idlib has witnessed in the past a few days was the “Islamic State” affiliate cells entry to the area and conduction of security operations that targeted dozens of the factions’ elements, especially those of “Tahrir al-Sham”.

Suddenly, “Amaaq” Agency started publishing daily videos and footages of assassinations, implemented by the “Islamic State” in different areas of Idlib, which have lately extended to the western countryside of Aleppo, the headquarters of the “Syrian Liberation Front”.


The way through which these cells have entered the area is not yet known; however, “Tahriar al-Sham” has linked it to the entry of ISIS elements who were positioned in former fronts in the astern countryside of Hama and accused these elements of the assassinations and the security chaos the governorate is currently suffering.

According to Fares Bayoush, a leader in the “Free Army”, the operations did not divert from the basic task for which the “Islamic State” was found, so it will continue the operations, knowing that the political impact would not be as before, since the “Islamic State” has been internationally and “popularly” exposed.

In a former interview with Imad al-Deen Mujahed, the Director of the Public Relations section under “Tahrir al-Sham”, he said that the “Islamic State” is following the strategy of “security war” in Idlib governorate after its power has been totally diminished in the different fronts in rural Hama.

He added that the current strategy includes the preparation of dozens of sleeper cells to conduct killing and kidnapping operations and to “spread corruption in the liberated northern parts of Syria”.

The operations, implemented by the “Islamic State” has the ability to distract the military power of Idlib’s factions, especially “Tahri al-Sham’s” on which the governorate basically count as to combat any offensive on the part of the Syrian regime and its allies.

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