Idlib governorate’s future is yet a source for many questions, so is the fate awaiting it in the upcoming period, especially that it is the most prominent area of those held by the factions of the Syrian opposition, following the progress of Assad’s forces, which lately advanced into Southern Syria.
Last week has witnessed several developments concerning Idlib, starting with the evacuation of Kafriya and Al-Fu’ah villages’ population, both civilians and armed groups, to end with the latest threats uttered by Bashar al-Assad, the head of the Syrian regime, that the governorate is Assad’s forces priority in the next phase.
A number of points distinguish Idlib from the rest of the Syrian governorates, as it has become a human reservoir for incubating thousands of internally displaced civilians and militants under the latest displacement campaigns that targeted the vicinity of the capital Damascus and the northern countryside of Homs; Idlib is also the headquarters of “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham,” which different international actors in Syria classify as a “terrorist” group.
Talks about Idlib’s future, to the day, are mere speculations; however, there are a few current indicators that attest these suppositions in part.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, two military sources, on the condition of anonymity, explained the Syrian regime’s plan for Idlib in the upcoming phase, which includes separating some parts of the governorate along the southern and western strip.
Jisr al-Shughur and al-Ghab Plain
Assad’s forces will progress towards Jisr al-Shughur and will impose total control over it, in addition to the city of Muhambal, and the villages located in the western countryside of Jisr al-Shughur, in a step to connect the city with the area of al-Ghab Plain, as to reach Jurin Military Camp, the “key” military base in the western countryside of Hama, according to the sources.
The sources have also reported that the former military developments will be supplemented by the Syrian regime’s re-opening of its administrative departments in the center of Idlib governorate to facilitate related procedures and to have control over the service-based joints in it, in a proactive step, especially that it is fully aware of Turkey’s intention in relation to this issue.
In the past days, Assad’s forces have brought in reinforcement to rural Lattakia and the surrounding of the area, separating the western countryside of Idlib, Jisr al-Shughur, and the northern countryside of Lattakia.
The reinforcements followed the information reported by the Russian news agency “Sputnik,” which quoted sources from Assad’s forces, saying that Assad’s forces are mobilizing to eliminate the opposition’s influence in the north-eastern rural parts of the city of Lattika and the rest of the mountain tops overlooking Jisr al-Shughur, northern rural Idlib.
The sources expect that Assad’s forces, as a first phase, will seek to alienate the western countryside of Idlib governorate and the opposition-held areas in rural Lattiak, just as they did in other Syrian areas, where they followed a policy based on dividing the targeted areas into small enclaves.
They added that Assad’s forces progress into Jisr al-Shughur would not be faced with “difficult” battles, pointing out to plans led to surrendering the areas to the regime without resistance, similar to what happened in the areas of Sharq al-Sikah (east of the railroad).
On July 25, “Sputnik” reported that Assad’s forces will capture a number of villages in al-Ghab plain, including Qastun, Al-Ziyarah, Foro and al-Hwaiz, which are the key to the Syrian regime’s army progress towards Jisr al-Shughur, pointing out that “the military action is expected to focus on re-opening the Aleppo-Lattakia highway.”
A “Fierce” Battle in Northern Aleppo
The regime’s demands would not stop at the western strip of Idlib, but rather, part of its battles will concentrate on the northern countryside of Hama, as it will try to control this part’s fundamental areas that are held by the opposition, from Halfaya, Kafr Zita, al-Lataminah to the borders of Khan Shaykhun.
The two sources pointed out that the principal military operation will concentrate on the northern countryside of Hama, which will be witnessing “fierce” confrontations between the regime and the “Free Army” factions. The confrontations might also be marked with the participation of Kurdish forces, especially following the lately announced readiness to participate on the part of a Kurdish leader.
According to the information that the sources managed to get, the former military developments in the western countryside and the northern countryside of Hama will be met by the “Free Army” faction’s progress towards the city of Manbij, which will be entirely under their control, regardless of America and with the Russians’ blessings.
In rural Hama, there is a number of factions, including “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham,” and the “National Front for Liberation,” formed with the merger of “Free Army” factions, in addition to “Jaysh al-Izza” faction, which performs in the rural parts of Hama particularly.
Assad’s forces progress will stop if they succeeded to control the cities in rural Hama; and, thus, they would have been capable of securing the city of Hama entirely, on the one hand, and their strategic areas in rural Lattakia and western rural Hama on the other.
“Free Army” Influence Restricted to Rural Lattakia
Despite the anticipated battle on the part of Assad’s forces in rural Lattakia, the factions of the “Free Army” will preserve some of the positions where they are currently in action, the sources said.
They pointed out that this will be achieved under a Russian-Turkish agreement that provide for the lasting influence of the factions in the area, with the exception of “Tahrir al-Sham” and the “Syrian Liberation Front.”
The mentioned declaration relates to the agreement that “Syria’s Tomorrow Movement” has lately announced with the Russians, covering rural Lattakia and the northern countryside of Homs.
On July 17, opposition sources said that the two agreements provide for a “ceasefire” under the auspice of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate, backed by guarantees from Russians and Ahmad al-Jarba, the Head of the “Tomorrow Movement.”
The sources, wishing to remain anonymous, added that representatives of opposition factions in the coast and rural Homs have authorized “Tomorrow Movement” to sign the deal as a guarantor and a facilitator to the agreement.
The Lattakia agreement’s formula is a call of “participation in the efforts seeking to combat terrorism and reaching a political resolution to the Syrian crisis, the refugees and internally displaced people’s return to their areas and the release of the detainees.”
The sources refused to reveal the names of the opposition factions that sealed the agreement because “the issue is highly sensitive in consideration to the area’s nature,” pointing out that Russia will allow the factions to control the areas from which they have lately retreated, such as the village of Salama. Nonetheless, the factions will practice this control under Russia’s supervision and total dependency on it.
The International Highway
In the context of what Idlib will be potentially witnessing, the regime and the opposition will be forced to withdraw from the two sides of the international highways passing Idlib, on the condition that the Damascus-Aleppo road is to be re-opened.
In return, the opposition factions and the Syrian regime retract from the two sides of the international highway, in addition to reactivating the Damascus-Aleppo road, on the condition that both sides commit to refrain from attacking any of each other’s convoys crossing the area.
In a former interview with Enab Baladi, Ibrahim al-Idelbi, a former military advisor at the “Free Army”, said that the International Damascus-Aleppo highway, passing through Idlib, will be secured by joint Russian-Turkish-Iranian patrols, under which ten kilometers at its both sides will be entirely covered.
In May, he added that joint patrols will spread in the buffer zone and that they will be in control of the international highway’s reactivation, alienating the military factions that will not have a part in the process.
The buffer zone extends on the area between the railroad and the International highway.
There is not a specific duration for the re-opening of the two highways that will be in the service of civilians and merchants once opened.