The Battle Over Syria’s Idlib Province
Why Idlib province, the last major stronghold of Syrian rebel forces, is a prized pawn for the Assad regime—and Iran
On September 18, a day after Russia and Turkey agreed to create a “demilitarized” buffer zone between Syrian government troops and rebel forces in Syria’s Idlib province, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif hailed the initiative and described it as part of “intensive responsible diplomacy” to avert conflict. At the end of his Twitter post, however, he stressed all parties’ commitment “to fight extremist terror,” thus leaving the door open to further military action in the area in the future.
Around the same time, in a phone conversation, the Iranian armed forces’ chief of staff told Syria’s defense minister that the Syrian army should fight the extremists
“with full force.”
If anything, this was an indication that, at least from Iran’s perspective—and arguably the Syrian government’s— the Turkish-russian arrangement was only a stopgap, and that the battle of Idlib, the rebels’ last major bastion, will ultimately be fought as Aleppo was. That battle led to the city’s recapture by President Bashar al-assad’s regime in December 2016.
Evidently, Iran and Syria consider extremist Salafi and Wahhabi groups as a grave threat to their security. And given the presence in Idlib of at least 10,000 militants from Al-qaedaaffiliated Hayat Tahrir al-sham, as well as hundreds of fighters from the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), both nations will wage a war in the province to drive them out.
Notably, they have even taken strategic advantage of these very same extremist groups to justify the indispensability of an all-out offensive. On September 24, the Assad government reportedly transferred over 400 ISIS militants from the eastern province of Deir Ezzor near the Iraqi border to the outskirts of Idlib.
For Damascus and Tehran, however, the potential campaign to retake control of Idlib is about much more than fighting extremists. For Syria, the province is primarily a matter of sovereignty and territorial integrity. In late September, Syria’s deputy foreign minister reaffirmed, in an interview with the Al-watan newspaper, the government’s determination to recapture Idlib. “We will be victorious in Idlib, and our message to the involved parties is quite clear: We will enter Idlib either through peace or war.”
The “involved parties” included
Russians and Turks. With the bulk of Syrian territory in the north and northeast under the control of Turkeyallied Sunni rebels and U.s.-backed Kurdish forces, respectively, Idlib in northwest Syria is the lowest hanging fruit for the Assad regime to pick.
And the province’s geographical position along the Turkish border has rendered its territorial status even more critical, probably causing fears inside the government that its protracted control by Turkey-backed rebels—including the National Liberation Front, formed in May 2018—could result in a fate similar to that of the Golan Heights: first captured during war by Israel, then annexed de facto. Aspirations among some rebel groups to establish, with Turkish blessing and support, an independent “republic of north Syria” in the Idlib province— which, incidentally, is the size of Leba- non—have stoked such apprehensions.
Iran, on the other hand, sees Idlib as a determinant of “strategic depth” against its archfoe, Israel. Israel’s air campaign, denying Iran-backed forces the opportunity to entrench themselves in Syria, has arguably intensified over the past year. More specifically, the strategy entered a new “maximalist” phase after a drone, purportedly armed and operated by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard from Syria’s military airbase in the Homs province, managed to infiltrate Israeli airspace in February. The Israeli air force intercepted the unmanned aerial vehicle but ultimately lost an F-16, one of at least eight aircraft dis- patched in response to the Syrian air defense fire. Following this deadly incident, Israel changed its defense posture toward the Syrian civil war, expanding the air campaign against Iran to “anywhere in Syria.”
In the face of Israel’s offensive against Iranian forces, the recapture of Idlib by the Assad regime will provide the Revolutionary Guard and allied Lebanese Hezbollah forces with greater operational maneuverability and latitude in western Syria. From this viewpoint, Idlib’s strategic advantage lies in its location deep inside Syrian territory, close to Turkey on the one hand and to the Alawite stronghold of Latakia on the other, which altogether makes it relatively more difficult for Israel to reach. Notably, for airstrikes against the Syrian air base east of Homs—allegedly a site of Iranian drone units and farther in the south—israeli warplanes had to use Jordanian airspace to enter Syria.
Control of Idlib can also facil- itate Tehran’s land access to the Mediterranean and its reconnaissance of Turkish moves near the Syrian border. This is of considerable strategic importance to Iran, as its northern pathway or “corridor” to the sea has been hampered by the presence of U.s.-backed Kurds and Turkish forces.
Earlier in the month, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the demilitarized zone, which was set to be fully operational by October 15, has already been effective and that “no large-scale military actions are expected” in Syria’s Idlib. In his words, “Military action for the sake of military action is unnecessary.” Meanwhile, according to reports by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, rebels including extremist groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-sham—a rebranded version of the Al-qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front and the largest insurgent outfit in Idlib—have withdrawn almost all of their heavy weapons from the demilitarized zone in compliance with the agreement.
Assad, however, made it clear in an October 7 speech at a meeting of his Bath Party’s central committee that the Russia-turkey deal on Idlib was a “temporary measure” aimed at “stemming the bloodshed” and that the province will finally revert to government control. The Syrian leader also rejected Western opposition to a military operation in Idlib as “hysterical.”
The Russia-turkey deal has so far delayed a Syrian-iranian offensive to recapture Idlib, but it will likely not prevent it. A major war for the control of the province is no longer a matter of “if ” but “when.”
THE FIGHT STUFF Syrian rebels, from the recently formed National Liberation Front, in Idlib Province in September.