Bloody Idlib battle to resume by end of year?

The Turkish-Russian ceasefire for Syria’s last rebel-controlled province has held for more than two months, but at least one analyst expects the forces of President Bashar Assad to resume their Idlib offensive in the coming months in a major push to reclaim all Syrian territory and end the 10-year war.  

Blaise Misztal, a fellow at U.S. think tank the Hudson Institute, said the ceasefire should not be viewed as a success because nearly 70 days on it has yet to be fully implemented. Among its key provisions is that Turkey and Russia jointly patrol a new security zone along the M4 highway.

“There have been I believe to date five or six attempts to hold those joint patrols, and none of those attempts have succeeded thus far,” Misztal told Ahval in a podcast, adding that the patrols had been broken up by protesters connected to al-Qaeda-linked rebel group Hayat al-Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which some purport to be an ally of Turkey’s.

That complex relationship, according to Misztal, is representative of the wider war and its unpredictability. He said that Turkey and the extremist-jihadist HTS had not embarked on a full partnership, but merely had temporarily aligned interests in keeping Assad out of Idlib. In organising the protests, HTS had sought to tell its followers that it had not moderated or made a deal with Turkey.

“HTS does not want to be ruled by Turkey; they have their own goal of establishing an Islamic emirate, much like ISIS [Islamic State] did in the east,” said Misztal. “They might see working with Turkey as a way to survive right now but they do not see themselves as a Turkish partner or proxy.”

Indeed, a crucial element of the ceasefire, and of the 2018 Sochi deal that preceded it, is that Turkey persuades Idlib rebel groups, including HTS, to lay down their arms. Thus far Turkish officials have made little progress on that count.

“Sooner or later,” said Misztal, “Russia and Iran are going to demand of Turkey that it demobilise HTS and Turkey’s going to have the choice of either failing to do that and risking conflict with the Assad regime or going to war with HTS.”

This is far from the only issue that has helped silence the guns in Idlib. Iran, Russia and Turkey have all been focused on their domestic battles with the coronavirus pandemic. Tehran lost the architect of its Syria campaign in January, when the United States assassinated Qassem Soleimani via drone strike, and it has endured Russian-Syrian squabbles and been battered by weeks of Israeli strikes in Syria, according to Misztal.

“There are a lot of factors that have contributed to this ceasefire not being violated yet, but that is very different than seeing this ceasefire actually take hold and lead to a political settlement,” he said.

Turkey is fully committed to Idlib after suffering its biggest military blow of the Syrian war in late February, when 34 of its soldiers were killed in an airstrike. Following that attack, Turkey launched Operation Spring Shield, in which heavy drone and artillery bombardment took out scores of Syrian government forces as well as several members of Hezbollah and other Iran-backed militias fighting in Idlib.

The Trump administration has long sought to counter increasing Iranian aggression in the region without committing additional troops, for which it would need a partner. Following Ankara’s assault on Iranian militias, several prominent figures, including U.S. envoy to Syria James Jeffrey, suggested NATO ally Turkey. Yet Misztal points out that the March operation was not really an attack against Iran, and that outside Idlib, Turkish and U.S. views on Iran rarely align.

“Turkey needed to push back to show it wasn’t going to take the killing of 34 of its own troops lying down. But it couldn’t push back against the actual perpetrator of those attacks, which was Russia,” he said. “In other places where the U.S. might have a desire to push back against Iran, like in Iraq, we’ve actually seen Turkey and Iran be much more on the same page.”

An even greater impediment to a U.S.-Turkey partnership is the government in Ankara. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is mainly looking to grow Turkish power and break Turkey away from the West and establish itself as an independent player in the Middle East and the broader region. “As long as Erdoğan is pursuing those goals, he’s never going to seriously consider a partnership with the United States,” said Misztal.

This explains why Turkey has aligned with a jihadi group to keep the forces of Russia- and Iran-backed Assad from crushing some 3 million displaced Syrians who are pressed up against the Turkish border in Idlib.

In a recent Atlantic Council webchat, Turkish Presidential Spokesman İbrahim Kalın said that the Assad regime would do everything in its power to undermine the ceasefire agreed on March 5. In his own way, Misztal agreed.

“Just as we have seen with each of the previous ceasefires, sooner or later the Assad regime and its partners will figure out a strategy, come up with a plan, or decide the time is right to push their luck a little bit further, and then when they’ve gone far enough they’ll retreat behind the safety of a new ceasefire,” he said.

“And I think we’re going to see that play out again probably before the end of this year.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.