Assad’s assault on Idlib: six questions answered

By: Emile Hokayem

International Institute for Strategic Studies 


The Syrian president and his Russian allies are preparing an attack on the country’s last rebel stronghold. These questions will be likely explaining military developments, the consequences for the wider Syrian conflict, and the impact on Turkey and the West.

What form could a military offensive take?

There are two scenarios – the first one is a limited offensive that seeks to regain strategic territory along the M4 and M5 highways, directly reconnecting the cities of Hama and Latakia to Aleppo. Rebel control of part of these two highways has impeded government reach, as well as traffic and trade, between the cities, and is a reminder of the continued lack of sovereignty of the Assad government across Syria.

The second scenario is a much broader offensive that seeks to reclaim all of the province of Idlib and small parts of the Hama and Latakia provinces still held by rebels. This would be a massive undertaking given the large number of rebel and jihadist fighters, the difficult terrain, and the large number of civilians.

The first scenario is certainly achievable, given the regime’s superior firepower and supporting Russian air power. The second scenario will require a massive investment of military resources. So while the outcome is not in doubt, the real question is the cost that Russia and Assad are willing to pay – as well as the humanitarian and political impact. It is possible that the regime and the Russians will settle for a phased approach that seeks to erode rebel and civilian morale, and weaken Turkey’s resolve.

Might Syria and its allies use chemical weapons?

The use of chemical weapons has become the main interest of the international community when it comes to Syria. Although chemical weapons haven’t caused the majority of deaths in Syria, they are used as a tactical battlefield weapon by the Assad regime, to terrify civilians and clear areas. They have already been used in the province of Idlib a number of times, most recently in April 2017.

That said, the US, the UK and France have made it clear they would retaliate against any further use of such weapons. So the Assad regime will think hard before resorting to such a measure in the short term.

There’s a perverse element to all this – by focusing on chemical weapons, the international community seems to be giving the green light to the use of other, deadlier weapons by the Assad regime. There’s a problem of mixed messaging here, which does carry its own risks and costs.

In the short term, the use of chemical weapons is plausible but unlikely. However, should the Assad regime decide to conduct a wider offensive to retake the whole of Idlib province or face military difficulties, it may decide to resort to using them. They’re a relatively cheap instrument that displaces large numbers of people and erodes morale.

Is this the end of internal opposition to Assad?

The mainstream rebellion has suffered major setbacks ever since Russia intervened directly in favor of Assad in 2015. The loss of Aleppo in late 2016 was a debilitating blow. Since then the trajectory for the armed rebellion has been very negative, and the loss of Idlib would be yet another nail in the coffin. But for the past three years the rebellion has had no realistic way of pressuring or defeating Assad, given its gradual abandonment by its Western and Arab supporters.

The question is whether any political opposition can survive the defeat of the armed rebellion. This will depend primarily on whether regional and international actors decide to normalize relations with Assad or continue to press for a genuine political settlement that includes a transition of power.

How would Turkey view an attack on Idlib?

Turkey is facing a massive security and humanitarian dilemma over Idlib. In late 2016, the country joined the so-called Astana process with Iran and Russia, to try to manage the battlefield inside Syria. But Turkey has been on the losing end of this process and has become entangled with Russia for little return, except for a de facto Russian acceptance of its anti-Syrian Kurdish campaigns.

Ankara fears that major fighting in Idlib will result in a new wave of refugees trying to penetrate its borders. So the country is busy building camps inside Idlib and other areas of Syria that it occupies, to pre-empt a massive wave of refugees.

Turkey is also worried about powerful jihadi groups in Idlib turning against it. For the past few years Turkey, which had shown problematic complacency toward these groups, has tried to weaken them by deploying forces and organizing non-jihadi rebels against them. It fears an attack on Idlib would make the jihadis the spearhead of the fight against Assad, handing them more supporters and popularity – and making Turkey’s role even more complicated.

Turkey has to factor Russian preferences in its response. Russia itself would like to expand Assad’s territorial reach, and defeat both the rebel and jihadi groups operating in Idlib. This would be vindication of Moscow’s strategy. At the same time, Russia has to be careful not to alienate Ankara too much, keeping it within the political process so it does not mount a response to any attack.

What are Turkey’s diplomatic and political options?

Turkey is engaged in very delicate diplomacy with both the US and its Astana process partners. In recent days, the US has attempted to warn Russia and the Assad regime against a massive operation, and confirmed a lasting involvement inside northeast Syria – a deployment Donald Trump had previously criticized and was hoping to end soon.

Today Turkey’s president is meeting with his Russian and Iranian counterparts in Tehran, to seek a way ahead. For Turkey the choices are stark – a massive campaign would be destabilizing and politically humiliating. Another option would be to compel, if not force, its Syrian allies and partners in Idlib to stand down and agree to a peaceful surrender – giving up their weaponry, accepting civilian governance under Assad and fighting the remaining jihadi groups.

That second option is going to be on the table in today’s talks – the key question is whether Turkey can maneuver deftly despite limited leverage to convince Iran, Russia and Assad to stand down.

Do Western countries have any power to influence events on the ground?

Western countries essentially turned away from Syria a couple of years ago, even though their own politics and security have been significantly affected by the crisis. In a way, this was a recognition of their lack of political will and their lack of capability in Syria – at this point they have very little influence on events on the ground. However Germany, the US and others are quite anxious about the arrival of a new wave of refugees into Turkey, something which would have consequences for Europe.

Ultimately, for Western powers to shape Syria’s trajectory even slightly they must invest a lot more politically and also flex some muscle. So far they have only done so in reaction to the use of chemical weapons, which has served to telegraph the fact that they’re not necessarily ready to address other forms of instability inside Syria.

The question is whether Russia will feel compelled to placate Western countries. Moscow is seeking renewed international legitimacy for the Assad regime, as well as financial assistance for Syria’s reconstruction, and expects Western countries to contribute to both. This may offer the West some leverage, or at least the illusion of it.


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