war on the rocks

The Urgency of Idlib: The Impending Regime Offensive and the Delicate Balance in Syria’s Northwest

August 3, 2018

As the Assad regime completes its conquest of southwestern Syria, attention is shifting to the country’s northwest and in particular to the province of Idlib, the last remaining bastion of opposition control. To many people’s great concern, the question of Idlib’s future has more recently turned to when the regime and its Iranian and Russian backers will attack, rather than whether they will do so.

An estimated 2.5 to 3.3 million people – at least 1.2 million of whom are internally displaced – are currently crammed into this largely rural region, which only constitutes 3 to 4 percent of Syria. Before 2011, Idlib was home to no more than 750,000 inhabitants. Syria’s northwest, long a hotbed of armed resistance and the heartland of al-Qaeda-linked operations, has become a real-life dumping ground for defeated opposition fighters and their families from elsewhere in the country. At least 70,000 armed men are currently in Idlib and its surrounding areas, according to one estimate, a sizable minority of whom belong to groups formerly or still linked to al-Qaeda. Should the regime unleash what would inevitably be a brutal military campaign upon Idlib, it would be civilians who would suffer immeasurably – and in larger numbers than ever before.

Having already taken in more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees since 2011, Turkey has firmly shut its border to any more people seeking to flee, so the prospect of conflict in Idlib is truly a nightmare scenario. All other events in Syria would look like drops in the ocean. And yet the United States, the European Union, and their allies in the region appear entirely disinterested.

Turkey has declared Idlib a “red line” and seems intent on enforcing it, though it remains unclear if that will be enough to stop a regime campaign. Russia, meanwhile, insists it is opposed to any escalation in hostilities in Idlib, but similarly, evidence of its capacity to truly restrain the Assad regime and Iran is limited at best.

The United States, Europe and their allies should urgently recognize the importance of sustaining the relative calm that currently prevails in northwestern Syria to avoid the array of challenges and threats that would result from a major escalation in fighting. Diplomacy is at the core of the solution. Idlib may look complicated and chaotic, but there is some order to that chaos – particularly because of Turkey’s risk-laden investment in asserting control over northwestern Syria’s various opposition actors. Russia’s dedication to continued de-escalation should be tested and reinforced. If there was ever a time to “work with the Russians,” it is now. Should hostilities be allowed to resume, the resulting havoc will be unprecedented in seven years of war and the consequences will be felt far and wide.

Syria’s De-Escalation Zones: Only Idlib Remains

A year ago, Syria contained four internationally negotiated “de-escalation zones” – areas in which actors on the ground and external states agreed not to engage in or to support hostilities in order to allow for much-needed calm and the delivery of humanitarian assistance to the hundreds of thousands in need. For most countries with a stake in the situation, this scheme – designed largely by Russia – appeared to move things towards something close to stability. Or at least that is what they convinced themselves. The immediate humanitarian benefit of lessened conflict served to justify Western support for “de-escalation.” By choosing to extend their stated support, Western capitals avoided having to do more, or indeed anything, to resolve other, more deep-seated issues.

However, it quickly became clear that the Assad regime was using this de-escalation design for malign purposes. Having long suffered the consequences of thinly stretched forces fighting on multiple fronts against a well-supported opposition, de-escalation provided an opportunity for the regime to regroup and prioritize. The amount of humanitarian aid granted was virtually meaningless and over time, the pro-regime alliance methodically violated the de-escalation zones themselves, initiating scorched-earth campaigns aimed at inducing mass opposition surrenders. Between January and late July 2018, three of four zones (around Homs, in Damascus’ Eastern Ghouta, and in the southwestern provinces of Deraa and Quneitra) were militarily retaken by the regime. Meanwhile, the world stood virtually silent. Only a regime chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta brought a joint U.S.-U.K.-French punitive air response, but even that amounted to little more than a slap on the wrist.

Now only the northwestern de-escalation zone remains in opposition hands, and the international community once again looks unlikely to stand in the way of the Assad regime. Already, new deployments of pro-regime troops have arrived to Idlib’s west (in the Latakia villages of Kinsaba and Ain al-Qantara); east (in and around Abu Dhuhour); and south (in Hama’s northern countryside). As a leading commander in Ahrar al-Sham based inside Idlib told me:

We have recently witnessed significant movements by the regime and Iranian militias… our forces on the fronts say the enemy has doubled its forces opposite Idlib over the past two weeks, in both Aleppo and Latakia, and many heavy weapons and artillery have also been sighted.

Despite the insistence by Russia’s special envoy to Syria that “any large-scale operation in Idlib is out of the question,” Assad himself and his ambassador at the United Nations have publicly signaled their determination to retake the northwest by force. In fact, Russia’s own foreign minister seemed to contradict his own special envoy on Aug. 2, when he insisted it was “necessary to deal a final blow to terrorists” in northwestern Syria.

Russia has long positioned itself as opposed to a major military offensive in Idlib. Given the mountainous terrain; the broadly dispersed and largely rural population; the scale of armed opposition numbers and marbled presence of experienced and committed jihadists; and the sheer size of the civilian and internally displaced population, any campaign to retake Idlib by force would likely require a far greater Russian military effort than anything Moscow has undertaken in Syria thus far. Moreover, the risk to Russian personnel and heavy equipment, as well as the reputational cost of the likely losses associated with any Idlib campaign make it an even less attractive prospect. Nevertheless, just as Russia’s limited ability to constrain Iran in southern Syria has been revealed for all to see in recent weeks, Moscow’s ability to deter the Assad regime and Iranian-linked militias from initiating a major conflict in Idlib is likely to be similarly insufficient.

How Hayat Tahrir al-Sham Could Benefit From the Idlib Incursion

Should the regime launch a serious campaign in the opposition-controlled northwest, it will be inserting itself into an immensely complex environment. Idlib and its immediate environs contain the entire array of anti-Assad armed groups, from the most moderate of the Free Syrian Army, to groups ideologically aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood and others who embrace more hardline Salafist (but still nationalist) beliefs, and finally to al-Qaeda. In recent months, an increasingly broad network of apparent ISIL sleeper cells has also emerged, more than four years after the jihadist group was expelled by opposition factions.

Over the past year, one armed group in particular has aggressively asserted its military preeminence in the northwest: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS. Formerly al-Qaeda’s official affiliate in Syria under the name Jabhat al-Nusra, HTS has since re-asserted its local strategic focus on Syria, at the expense of its relationship with al-Qaeda. Leaders within the global jihadist movement, including its overall leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, now openly speak of HTS as an entirely separate movement, stridently critiquing it for violating its oath of allegiance and abandoning the global cause.

Having achieved dominance in the area, thanks primarily to a series of military campaigns against more mainstream opposition rivals, HTS has sought to expand its political and governance efforts, coordinating them through a civilian-run “Salvation Government.” The group has expanded and energized initiatives to provide core services, from education and health care to electricity and water. Some formerly military units have been reorganized into local police forces and perhaps most notably, a previously subdued Political Office has been restructured and authorized to conduct outreach to foreign governments. According to two HTS leadership figures and several government officials – all speaking on the condition of anonymity – HTS now retains active political relations with at least two regional states, while multiple European governments have actively considered the prospect of establishing formalized relations with the “Salvation Government” and its political leaders, some of whom spend considerable time across the border in southern Turkey. As one Islamist figure who works closely with HTS leadership explained to me:

Although [HTS] has many problems with others, nobody can ignore their power… [HTS] have done much work to reform their image and… God willing, the people will come to acknowledge this and support our vision, for this is their best path … We also want to talk to foreign governments, so long as they are genuine in their intentions.

The situation is not quite so simple, however, because HTS is now immensely unpopular in the northwest. The way it achieved military dominance in Idlib – at the expense of more local, more mainstream opposition groups – burned bridges with the civilian population and broader opposition movement that HTS’ predecessors spent years building. Many on the ground now refer to HTS as “Hitsh” – a play on the HTS acronym that audibly, and intentionally, resembles the popular derogatory use of “Da’esh” for ISIL. In a one-on-one meeting I had in late 2017, the leader of Ahrar al-Sham, Hassan Soufan, spoke plainly about the threat posed by “Hitsh’s” extremism, which he himself compared to that of ISIL. Earlier this week, I spoke with a leading member of Ahrar’s Shura Council expressed similar frustrations:

[HTS] attacked the [other opposition] factions because we established relations with Turkey and the international community in order to achieve the best interests of the revolution and for the Syrian people. [HTS] accused the factions of using weak political speech and they [HTS] mobilized their fighters [against us] using these ideas, but it later became clear… that [HTS] is doing exactly the same thing! They are now paying the price for the contradictions between their rhetoric and actions and for their aggressions on the factions and the people.

Most northwestern communities have submitted to their new jihadist overlords, but only grudgingly. Though far from perfect, this situation is preferable to the one seemingly on the horizon, as it is only the threat of a massive regime offensive on Syria’s northwest could change the equation and place the people back into HTS’ pocket.

Turkey: The Real Power

The most important actor in northwestern Syria is in fact not HTS, but Turkey. Having long exerted a powerful influence over opposition actors in the northwest, Turkey’s role has expanded since its military intervention in northern Aleppo in August 2016. Driven primarily by a determination to block further expansion of the Kurdish YPG – the Syrian wing of Turkey’s decades-old terrorist adversary, the PKK – Turkey’s military has since established control over a 150km-wide band of territory, stretching from Afrin east to Jarablus on the western bank of the Euphrates River. As a principal guarantor of the northwestern de-escalation zone, Turkey’s military has also established 12 “observation posts” ringing in opposition territory from western Aleppo south through Idlib, into northern Hama, and back up through western Idlib’s border with Latakia. These posts began as minor lookout points, but have grown to resemble small forward-operating bases, ringed by barbed wire and increasingly by reinforced concrete walls, and housing fleets of armored vehicles and other heavy weaponry.

Until now, HTS has actively assisted Turkey in establishing its military presence in Idlib – despite considerable consternation within HTS ranks and severe criticism from al-Qaeda loyalist circles. For HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, this cooperative relationship with a foreign state’s armed forces has been a pragmatic way to protect his group’s long-term interests. But that explanation is becoming increasingly difficult to sell internally, without more evidence that the alliance with Turkey can indeed prevent a regime campaign. Strong Turkish pressure on HTS to dissolve itself and integrate into a broader, more mainstream opposition structure – possibly as an extension of the Turkish-backed “National Army” based to the east in northern Aleppo – has added to a sense within HTS that Turkey may not have the group’s best interests at heart. In fact, multiple Islamic figures close to HTS have insisted to me in recent days that HTS will eventually have no choice but to merge into an explicitly Turkish-backed armed structure. “Merge or die,” as one of them said.

Turkey, for its part, has expanded ties with HTS and affiliated bodies in northwestern Syria in order to control HTS – to bolster the group’s “pragmatic” wing and undermine the hardcore fundamentalists. In other words, Turkey has engaged HTS to control it and to divide it, with the objective being to shape a reformed HTS more willing to fall under Ankara’s control. Over the past year, Turkey has facilitated the assassination of troublesome jihadists, including members of HTS, as part of a complex shaping strategy. Until now this intrinsically risky approach appears to have worked, but it’s unclear how durable Turkey’s influence over HTS will be if and when the regime turns its guns on Idlib.

According to multiple opposition leaders I spoke with in early 2018, Turkey has also continued to engage with other opposition actors in the northwest, occasionallyturning the taps back on” in terms of military support, in response to significant incursions by pro-regime forces. “Turkey has been the most important supporter of the Syrian revolution,” one leading Free Syrian Army commander based in western Aleppo told me. “Turkey stands next to us as a partner, as we face the threats from the regime, Russia, Iran and the likes of Hezbollah. Any threat to our factions is a threat to Turkey, and [vice-versa].” The prominent Ahrar al-Sham Shura Council member told me that while he agreed that Turkey served a role as the defender of the opposition, it would be Syrians, not Turks, who would do any fighting: “”There is no doubt that the role of Turkey – as an ally of the Syrian revolution – is very central to preserving the liberated north,” he said, but “the task of defense and fighting will remain on us.”

Turkey has pressured mainstream opposition factions to unite their forces to present a more cohesive challenge to HTS’ aggressive tendencies. Such a force would be easier for Ankara to control and could more effectively deter regime attack. Consequently, in February 2018, Ahrar al-Sham and Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zinki merged to form the Syrian Liberation Front (SLF) and in late May, ten Free Syrian Army factions combined to create the National Liberation Front (NLF). Meanwhile, the “National Army” has continued to expand its forces alongside separate military and civilian police forces – all trained and equipped by the Turkish military.

It has been no secret that Turkey has wanted all of these forces – the National Army, the NLF, SLF and HTS – to unite. According to seven senior opposition figures involved, through July, Turkey mediated intensive talks – held in northern Idilb, northern Aleppo, and in Ankara, and including HTS – expressly seeking this objective. Eventually, the groups agreed that the SLF, Suqor al-Sham and Jaish al-Ahrar would join the NLF (announced on Aug. 1). A second agreement stipulated that in the event of a major regime offensive on Idlib, a single operations room would undertake a collective defense, combining the efforts of the NLF, SLF, HTS and notably also a number of al-Qaeda loyalist groups. Such a unity of effort would mark a major turning point, given the bitter and frequently hostile divisions among these actors. As one leading figure within the opposition Islamist community in Idlib told me: “If it comes to it, every gun will count and our differences will fade away.”

Despite agreeing to unify their forces, mainstream opposition groups in Idlib do not appear to have concentrated any effort on training and preparation for a resumption of hostilities. On the other hand, HTS has invested considerably, according to three military commanders in the group – all of whom spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. According to them, HTS has leveraged mid- and senior-level members with prior professional military experience to run intensive training camps in small unit tactics such as snatch-and-grab kidnappings, small group raids, drive-by shootings and stand-off attacks using rocked-propelled grenades and similar weapons. Specialist units, the commanders told me, have been trained in manufacturing IEDs and the list of fighters willing to be suicide bombers has grown substantially. HTS has also made use of “Syria’s first jihadi private military contractor,” known as Malhama Tactical – run by Russian-speaking former elite soldiers who provide bespoke training courses on light and heavy weaponry and other tactical instruction. Compared to Turkey’s most favored and more controllable opposition groups, HTS – which Turkey has engaged but sought to keep at an arm’s length – has done far more to prepare for the fight, suggesting that should hostilities indeed erupt, the extremists may still be the ones best equipped to fight back.

Conflict is Likely, But Can It Be Prevented?

The dynamics of northwest Syria are extraordinarily complex and the preceding discussion represents only a surface-level picture. Despite the challenges posed by hostile jihadists, Idlib’s civil society continues to thrive; the region’s huge population of internally displaced persons continues to grow while foreign aid struggles to meet their needs; and a deeply entrenched war economy remains in place, with enemies trading huge sums on a daily basis.

Although the costs of massive conflict in Idlib are clear to most, there are spoilers aplenty, including the growing network of ISIL sleeper cells, which seem determined to instill or exacerbate opposition divisions. The determination among al-Qaeda loyalists to demonstrate their rejection of the de-escalation agreement – a deal negotiated by foreign, “apostate” powers – has resulted in a number of deadly armed assaults on pro-regime positions in Latakia, which only serve to justify the regime’s desire to conquer the northwest. Some loyal to al-Qaeda may even seek to erode the relationship between HTS and Turkey , thereby re-opening the possibility of al-Qaeda re-assuming control over the thousands of fighters it lost when HTS pursued its separate path. Finally, and perhaps most dangerously, nearly 20 mysterious kamikaze drone attacks emanating from western Idlib have targeted Russia’s military headquarters in Hmeymim Airbase in Latakia. These attacks could persuade a skeptical Russia of the need to back a regime campaign to squash the opposition in Idlib.

Moscow has a major role to play in deterring its partners in Damascus and Tehran from pursuing a brutal military solution in Idlib. Unfortunately, there is no evidence from developments elsewhere in Syria that Russia can match its restrained words with actual restraint. If Russian statements on Idlib begin to focus more heavily on the presence of “terrorist” groups, singling out the role of HTS and al-Qaeda , one should assume a military campaign is in the cards. Overall, it seems the reasons for a regime offensive are adding up, not dwindling, notwithstanding the many statements coming from Moscow that suggest the contrary.

The key question is: What will Turkey do if an offensive begins to look imminent? Ankara has insisted Idlib is a red line, but exactly how red remains to be seen. Allowing Idlib to fall would set a dangerous precedent, swiftly opening the path for a pro-regime campaign to recapture other areas of northern Syria currently under Turkish control. For Turkey, that scenario places the Kurdish YPG into the center of the equation, particularly given recent comments by senior Kurdish officials suggesting that the YPG would be willing to assist a regime campaign on Idlib. Besides that threat, the broader political body responsible for the YPG’s campaign against ISIL, known as the Syrian Democratic Council, only days ago initiated a formal dialogue with the Assad regime in Damascus, raising the stakes yet further for Ankara.

As such, Turkey may be willing to take extraordinary risks to prevent the regime from initiating hostilities – something Russia probably knows well. Opposition members have suggested in private conversations that Turkey will soon be supplying them with MANPADS. These rumors are almost certainly designed with one audience in mind: Russia, which would be greatly sensitive to any heightened threat to air assets. Likewise, newly intensified negotiations for armed group mergers in the northwest and a recent marked increase in Turkish military reinforcements and structural and defensive improvements to its observation posts in Idlib all speak to a sense of real urgency. Turkey has also reportedly signaled that it will withdraw from the Astana process altogether and resume full support to the complete array of armed group proxies in northern Syria, should its Idlib “red line” come under threat.

The question about Idlib’s future is no longer about protecting the last remaining pocket of actors capable of confronting the Assad regime – this seems like a moot point given the irreversible trajectory of the conflict in the regime’s favor. Instead, the question is now about the sheer scale of the humanitarian disaster that would result from a military campaign would be extraordinarily destructive. The regime’s conquest of southern Syria in recent weeks forced more than 330,000 people from their homes – the largest displacement in seven years of conflict. A sustained military campaign in Idlib would dwarf that by a sizable margin.

Russia could try to sell a compromise to Turkey, Assad and Iran, in which peripheral areas of strategic value (northern Hama, Jisr al-Shughour and Jabal Turkman, for example) to the pro-regime alliance would come under regime attack, leaving the core of Idlib intact. Ultimately, even if Russia were to sell such a halfway bargain, it remains virtually impossible to imagine pro-regime forces stopping part of the way in.

Preventing the worst-case scenario will require a serious and immediate diplomatic investment. It may be true that the United States and its Western allies have minimal immediate interests inside Idlib, but allowing the situation there to deteriorate so markedly will guarantee the explosion of serious secondary effects that will threaten Western interests for some time. As I recently argued, the globalist terrorist threat emanating from northwestern Syria may never have been more real than it is now, though it at least remains small in scale for the time being. However, should hostilities explode, that threat will increase substantially. And that is not even to mention the unprecedented number of displaced persons, the potential for a refugee crisis, and the destruction, violence, and mass casualties – all of which will create a breeding ground for extremism for years to come.

Options for international action are limited, but diplomacy should play a central role, beginning with public acknowledgments of the importance of sustaining a state of relative calm in northwestern Syria. The pro-regime alliance speaks frequently of its determination to rid Syria of terrorism, but it’s clear that chaos and destruction feed the roots of extremism. Bringing hellfire onto Idlib and its millions of inhabitants will not deal with terrorists – it will gift them an invaluable opportunity to survive into the long term. If Russia truly opposes any escalation in hostilities in the northwest, as it claims to, the United States and its allies should hold it to that position. If there was ever a time to “back the Russians,” this is it.

The United States, the European Union, and allies in the region should collectively propose an international conference aimed at renegotiating a more durable de-escalation mechanism for Syria’s northwest. Such an arrangement should appreciate the importance of maintaining one final pocket of opposition territory in Syria, but specifically one under the iron grip of an Astana guarantor state (Turkey). In this way, the United States and other foreign governments would be actively contributing to the viability and authenticity of ongoing political efforts, whether the United Nations’ new Constitutional Committee and other subject-matter working groups, or the nascent Geneva or Vienna processes. The collective international effort should also include a continuation of humanitarian and stabilization assistance into northwestern Syria, preferably directed through the Turkey-backed, internationally recognized Syrian Interim Government, whose fledgling on-the-ground presence in the area needs help expanding.

The recommendations laid out here are not especially novel. They merely focus on reinforcing the status quo, in which an extended period of relative calm brings continued humanitarian benefit, avoids a catastrophic escalation, and provides more space for the one actor with real on-the-ground leverage – Turkey – to continue its attempts to minimize the malign influence of the most dangerous actors around. Ankara’s recent success in securing a mass merger of all non-HTS groups into an Free Syrian Army-led umbrella could prove a crucially important development in challenging extremists. It certainly raises the pressure on a group like HTS to follow suit, or risk alienating itself yet further. On the other hand, a return to all-out conflict would guarantee that the likes of HTS and al-Qaeda will win the narrative war and sustain themselves for years to come.

 

Charles Lister is a senior fellow and Director of Countering Terrorism and Extremism at the Middle East Institute, and the author of the critically-acclaimed book, The Syrian Jihad. Twitter: @Charles_Lister

Image: Wikimedia Commons