Idlib is currently home to about 4 million civilians, including hundreds of thousands of people displaced in recent years by government-backed forces throughout war-torn Syria, with some likely taking the cease-fire as an opportunity to return home. Around 1 million Syrians were displaced from the Idlib province after an offensive last November. Most of the refugees sought shelter at camps close to the border with Turkey, while others went to areas under the control of the Syrian opposition.
Current developments in southern Idlib suggest that a five-month truce could soon come to an end with a fresh government offensive to capture Syria’s last rebel stronghold. The fragile cease-fire in Idlib — in place since early March when a Turkish-Russian deal ended a violent escalation (in their meeting in Moscow on March 5th, the presidents of Turkey and Russia agreed to establish a security corridor 6 kilometers deep on either side of the M4 highway to reopen the key road to traffic) — seems to be teetering on the brink of collapse amid growing signs that the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been increasing their military buildup to Idlib from the southeast and Deir ez-Zor. Many see this as the omen of a forthcoming onslaught to defeat radical factions from the Ghab Plain and Zawiyah Mountain, which dominate southern Idlib and establish a firm grip over the cleared area.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported on regime forces dispatching new military reinforcements to their positions in Idlib’s rural areas. Activists in Idlib said they documented over 50 ceasefire violations lately committed by government forces and Iranian militias. These violations, according to the activists, targeted inhabited neighborhoods and included rocket shelling of areas in southern Idlib.
On the other hand, under its deal with Moscow, Ankara promised to moderate the armed rebels in Idlib and purge the region from the radical ones. But despite Ankara’s efforts and the joint patrols, the radicals remain in the region.
In what appeared as the harbinger of an impending ground offensive, Russian jets targeted several areas in northeastern Latakia province and at Binnish in eastern Idlib on Aug. 2-3, coupled with artillery fire and rockets targeting the Ghab Plain and Zawiyah Mountain. Russian and government forces have frequently used air and artillery attacks to pave the way for ground offensives and force civilians to flee.
Local sources contacted by Al-Monitor say they believe Ankara might acquiesce to regime forces taking control of the Ghab Plain and Zawiyah Mountain in return for certain gains in Libya, where Turkey needs tacit Russian support at the very least. This scenario is the biggest concern in Idlib’s rebel-held areas because, once this line of defense falls, there is no other high ground to shield Idlib city.
Therefore, the radicals’ retreat from those two areas would mean the automatic fall of a very mountainous and well-defended pocket. This would be a huge setback for the armed rebels in Idlib because, as a result, the western front of Jisr al-Shughur and the eastern front of Ariha would be easily separated, facilitating the governmental forces’ capture of the southern high ground dominating Idlib city.
All in all, Idlib appears headed for a critical juncture in September and October. Among those on edge are the 1.3 million civilians in Idlib city, who keep an eye both on the south, from where the regime forces would come, and on the north, where the Turkish border is their route for escape.
Other reasons related to the involvement in Syria
Regardless of the reduction of American troops in Syria, the U.S. has been successful in utilizing other powers in aiding its policies in Syria. The United States may continue to have influence in Syrian and Middle Eastern affairs for the foreseeable future.
The Assad government will continue to hold power — the U.S. prefers to maintain the current status, which has been a long-term American policy. For the United States, the maintenance of the current government is the only viable solution, which can aid its interests in the future.
There is also another reason for upholding the Syrian government, which benefits both the U.S. and Israel. Over the years, both Hafez al Assad and his son Bashar have utilized a rhetoric of invoking the Golan height lost due to the 1967 war as bolstering their popularity and survival. Thus, it is arguably in the interests of both the U.S. and Israel to preserve the current Syrian political elite. And Turkey and Russia have been aiding the U.S. plan in Syria for some time now.
Besides the tensions between the U.S. and Russia, which is standard between adversarial great powers, there has also been much cooperation between the two. Russia has maintained a presence in Syria since Obama’s time to support the Syrian government and in fighting ISIS.
The Trump Administration’s objectives have been based on withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria as much as possible while leaving Russia to back the Assad government through military force. In reality, however, Russia is not content with being in the region since Syria is not a geopolitical imperative for Russia unlike Ukraine, the Caucasus, and the Baltics; therefore, Russia has remained trapped in Syria.
Russia also hoped that cooperation with the U.S. by getting involved in the Syrian crisis could somehow aid in removing the U.S. and EU sanctions due to its Crimean annexation of 2014. Although Russia has learned to work around the sanctions, they have continued to pose a considerable amount of pressure on its economic health.
Turkey’s role can be assessed also in the following way, orbiting around America’s policy towards Syria. However, this was a massive blow to the Kurdish fighters in Syria-American allies. When Trump decided for the second time in 2019 to withdraw more U.S. troops from Syria, it left Kurdish fighters in Syria even more exposed to Turkish military assaults. The reason for the withdrawal was to help the Syrian Government regain its grip on the country, where it left the Kurds with no other alternative except to surrender and return to Assad in order to maintain their survival. In early March of 2020, the Turkish shelling of the Russian-backed Assad forces left.