Russia unlikely to full-on push for Assad control over Idlib in Syria

Ahead of Saturday’s talks with Turkey over the Idlib offensive, Russia seems unlikely to push for Syrian President Bashar al Assad taking full control of the Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold in the country, Reuters reported on Friday.

Such a push would risk major confrontation with Turkey, it said.

A Russian delegation will arrive in Turkey on Saturday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced, to discuss the Idlib offensive amid heightened tensions over the killing of eight Turkish soldiers by Assad’s forces.

Russia’s priority is to open major highways, Syrian military defector general Ahmad Rahhal told Reuters. “Falling in the Idlib (city) quagmire is very costly militarily and a humanitarian catastrophe with one million people inside the city.”

Instead of a full-on confrontation, Russia seems to prefer “biting chunks of rebel turf in a piece by piece approach,” Reuters quoted an unnamed senior Western intelligence source as saying.

Assad’s forces have pushed close to the province’s centre in recent weeks, with support from Russian airstrikes, which has forced a new wave of migration towards the Turkish border.

Turkish officials put the number of people fleeing near the country’s border at one million.

Already host to 3.6 million Syrian refugees, Turkey has announced its full intention to retaliate possible attacks by Assad’s forces. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has said Turkey would act if Russia could not ensure the withdrawal of Syrian forces from positions beyond the Turkish observation posts in February.

Regime forces have come very close to central Idlib, an unnamed Turkish government source told Reuters. “The rules of engagement in Syria have changed, a new era has started now.”

Backed by Iranian militias, Syrian forces have arrived at the fringes of Idlib city, Reuters said, having taken control of Maarat al-Numan and Saraqeb towns near the M4-M5 highway.

President Erdoğan accused Moscow on Wednesday of failing to honour a 2018 deal aimed to de-escalate tensions in Idlib, adding that the current situation in the province implied the collapse of the Astana process launched by Ankara, Moscow and Tehran in January 2017 to explore a political solution to the Syrian crisis.

Meanwhile, Moscow maintains that Turkey has failed to fulfil its obligations to clear the province of extremist groups.

Idlib is a red line, Turkish intelligence told some 40 rebel commanders in a meeting in the Reyhanlı district of Turkey’s Hatay province, which lies across the border from Idlib, a source that attended the meeting told Reuters. 

The commanders were told in the meeting to prepare for the worst as Turkey’s talks with Moscow had failed.

In case of a battle in Idlib, jihadists would fight with all their strength, a senior commander in Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) told Reuters.