Assault on Idlib could be a bloodbath, warns Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan
Turkey bolsters Syrian rebels even as it seeks Russian deal to defuse Idlib tension
The Syrian government has promised to recapture the entirety of Idlib from rebel groups, and has spent the past few weeks amassing forces. But a military operation to retake the densely populated province could be the most challenging and complex battle of the entire war.
Idlib has become the last refuge of the armed opposition to President Bashar Al Assad. For the past few years the province has been used as a dumping ground for various rebel groups defeated in other parts of the country. After a series of surrender deals in previous battles allowed them to retreat to Idlib, there is nowhere else for those fighters to run.
The US estimates there are some 30,000 opposition fighters spread out across the province, while others put the number as high as 100,000. Turkey backs a coalition of rebel groups there, and holds a dozen military observation posts scattered across the edges. But two thirds of Idlib is controlled by the former Al Qaeda-affiliate Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), which is estimated to be around 10,000-strong.
Squaring off against them will be some 25,000 Syrian troops, dozens of armoured units, heavy artillery, Russian air and naval support.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said that an all-out attack would cause a “bloodbath”, and has been negotiating for an alternative. Exactly what the battle for Idlib will look like depends on whether Turkey and Russia can agree on how to deal with HTS.
Turkey is pushing for a solution that doesn’t involve a large-scale government offensive, which would send another wave of refugees towards its border.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Friday: "We are ready to cooperate with everyone to fight terrorist organisations. But killing everyone — civilians, women, children — like this in the name of fighting terrorist organisations is not right and is not humane.”
Russia and Syria see little distinction between rebels who oppose Assad, and are eager to take action. Even if Turkey can convince Russia and Syria to limit their aims in Idlib, there are some targets that they are unlikely to leave alone.
The early stages of an offensive are likely to be focused on two main priorities: stopping drone attacks against Russia’s Hmeimim base in Latakia, and reopening the M5 highway that runs connects Damascus to Aleppo.
“Assad and his allies need an objective in Idlib that can be gained with speed and then trumpeted as a big victory before a punitive response comes,” said Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security Fellow at the Centre for a New American Security.
“For those purposes, areas along the M5 highway in the southern and eastern areas of Greater Idlib, where the terrain favors Assad's armour, or massive bombardment and commando raids in the western areas of Greater Idlib in Lattakia, would be most likely,” he added.
There has so far been no indication that large numbers of Iranian forces or Hezbollah units are planning to be involved in the attack on Idlib. According to the pro-government Al Masdar news, a total of nine Syrian army divisions will take part, alongside the elite Republican Guard. They will be supported by 15 Russian naval vessels currently in the Mediterranean Sea and Russian air support.
A Syrian government official told Reuters that any attack would likely come in phases, which would first target Jisr Al Shughour and the AL Ghab plain on the western side of the rebel territory.
Without an agreement with Turkey, Syrian government forces would then face a daunting series of urban battles against rebel fighters making a last stand, with the potential for Turkish military forces to get caught up in the battle.
Should Turkey and Russia strike a deal, the picture will be quite different. There have been some suggestion that Turkey would stand aside and allow Russia and Syria to carry out targeted strikes against HTS, and perhaps even participate in a counter-terror campaign against it.
But such an attack would create huge complications for Turkey, given that the group has spread itself throughout the province, and most rebels would not support it.
Turkey’s preferred option is to “shape conditions in which a substantial portion of HTS is willing to submit itself to Turkish instruction,” according to Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. Turkey would use pressure to force HTS to dissolve, “or to engage constructively in some broader negotiated compromise for the northwest.”
In which case, the battle for Idlib may resemble something closer to a low level conflict between Turkey and elements within HTS, with the eventual aim of causing its dissolution.
“Turkish intelligence service, the MIT, has been involved in facilitating the assassination of HTS commanders who openly refused to go along with continued de-escalation, and others accused of actively trying to spoil de-escalation,” said Mr Lister.
However, the group has so far rejected Turkey’s calls to lay down its arms or dissolve into a coalition of Ankara-backed groups.
In the meantime, Ankara is not taking any chances. It has been bolstering its rebel allies with large shipments of ammunition and weapons to dissuade a Syrian government attack. The deliveries of ammunition and GRAD rockets followed the failure of high-level talks between Russia, Turkey and Iran last week to find a solution.
The message from Turkey is that if talks fail, the costs of an attack will be high.