Sun 26 May 2019

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From the West, Battles Draw a New Map for Idlib

Troops of the al-Tawhid wal-Jihad Battalion of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, rural Idlib – April 2019 (Ebaa news agency)

Troops of the al-Tawhid wal-Jihad Battalion of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, rural Idlib – April 2019 (Ebaa news agency)

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“As rebels on the ground, we are completely incapable of making any predictions,” a leader of the National Front for Liberation (NFL) answered on the condition of anonymity, asked by Enab Baladi to provide a clarification about the developments of Idlib governorate’s status of territorial control and the future lying ahead of its fronts.

The leader’s response is a projection of the general reality of Northern Syria, which is yet ambiguous. Covered by Russian warplanes, the Assad forces have started a military operation against the opposition factions in the northern and western rural parts of Hama and despite their control of several areas, the target that the forces seek remains unknown, especially that there talks about a limited military operation in Northern Syria, under a Russian-Turkish agreement.

The areas controlled by Assad forces so far are: The town of Kafr Nabudah in northwestern rural Hama, which is considered the gate to Idlib governorate and its first line of defense in the south, and Qalaat Al-Madiq with the villages surrounding it, which Assad forces entered without a fight following the opposition factions’ withdrawal from it.

Assad forces, as shown by the territorial control map, are focusing on the western flank of Hama, where the military operations are targeting al-Ghab Plain and the Shashabo Mountain. This is the area that Russia threatened to control back in March 2018; however, an agreement was later reached, providing for stopping any military operations towards it.

Assad Forces’ offensive against Hama corresponds to an intensive bombardment by the Russian warplanes and the Syrian regime’s helicopters, which are particularly targeting Idlib’s southern countryside, as far as the northern and western rural parts of Hama, the locus of the forces’ operations.

Between Withdrawal and Serious Action

Since Assad forces embarked on the offensive, a few days ago, the key factions operating in the northern and western rural parts of Hama have not shown full force on the fronts, and Assad forces attacks have been combatted by the area’s militants alone.

The NFL leader informed Enab Baladi that the Syrian regime would not be able to progress, not for an inch within the “liberated” areas unless the Turks and the Russians have a deal “under the table”.

He added that whether Assad forces are going to progress or stop at specific areas depends on the map, agreed upon by the Turks, Russians and the opposition factions.

He explained that the leaders of the opposition factions, who are on the battlefield, have no idea of what the area is going to witness, unlike the leadership of NFL, which the Sham Legion spearheads.

During the Syrian regime’s attacks on Kafr Nabudah and its vicinity, the factions, on top of which are Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and NFL, never ceased to announce their combating Assad forces and killing some of their troops, in addition to the machinery, tanks, and armored vehicles they destroyed.

The situation in Qalaat Al Madiq was, nonetheless, different. The area bore witness to the Assad forces entry without a fight, which followed the faction’s withdrawal from it. Quoting a leader of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Enab Baladi’s reporter said that the militants of the Qalaat al-Madiq did not actually withdraw, for combating Assad forces was limited to Jaysh al-Nasr (Army of Victory) and a number of the area’s militants.

The leader added that the factions’ representation of Qalaat al-Madiq was “sparsely and shameful” and explained that only a small patch of the area’s militants stayed in Qalaat al-Madiq, without heavy or medium weapons.”

In the northern and western parts of rural Hama, HTS is considered the striking force, and, earlier on, it had taken over rural Hama that FSA was controlling through the military operation it started early this year.

Expected Scenarios

Analyses addressing Idlib’s fate in the future are many, while none of them is being taken for certain. But still, the scenarios having to do with the area’s geography can be guessed based on the territorial control reality.

Assad forces’ arrival into the town of Kafr Nabudah, drew them closer to the town of Hobait, administratively bound to the city of Khan Shaykhun. It is likely that they will continue the military attacks to strike a cordon around Hama countryside, which includes Ltamenah, Kafr Zita and Murak, where the Jaysh al-Izza (Army of Glory) is stationed and that had lately refused to allow running the Russian patrols in the demilitarized zone.

A few kilometers to the west in rural Hama, Assad forces seem keen on progress on their fronts with greater intentions, for they have controlled several areas after they took over the Qalaat al-Madiq, including Bab al-Taqa, al-Sharia and the Mustariha in Shashabo Mountain. The forces, thus, took hold of the road that the Turkish army used to run its patrols of late.

The talked-about limited range of Assad forces’ military operations are expected to be the application of a scenario based on biting off the areas one after the other, starting with the al-Ghab Plain, as to secure Jurin Military Camp and As-Suqaylabiyah, as far as the area of Jisr al-Shugur, which is linked to the northern rural parts of Latakia, one of the areas bothering Russia the most, as it lies in the hands of al-Qaeda-affiliated military formations on the one hand and for being the area from where missiles are directed at the Khmeimim Air Base on the other.

The Assad forces’ military operation has so far erased the geopolitical borders of Northern Syria, while how the borders will end up in the upcoming a few days is yet unknown, especially with the ambiguity engulfing Turkey’s position, which made a single statement concerning the escalation in Idlib, where the Minister of Defense,  Hulusi Akar, pointed out that the Syrian regime is trying to expand its control over southern Idlib, adding that “the regime has to stop its attack on southern Idlib, and take back its troops to the borders agreed upon in Astana.”

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