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

Newsweek International - - CONTENTS - MAYSAM BEHRAVESH @behmash

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.

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