Round one of Idlib battle likely against Turkish-backed rebels - analyst

Damascus, along with its allies in Moscow and Tehran, are indifferent to Ankara’s dissatisfaction over plans for rebel-held Idlib, which is likely to spur massive refugee flows and a serious breach between Turkey and Russia, wrote Fabrice Balanche,  research director at the University of Lyon 2,  in article published by the Washington Institute think tank.

As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad seemingly aims to retake all of Idlib, Balanche wrote, he will likely start with a limited offensive given the size of the rebel forces as ‘’the regime’s primary purpose is to provide better protection for Latakia and the Russian base at Hmeimim, which have been targeted regularly by rebels located around Jisr al-Shughour.’’

Its second objective, according to the author, is to ‘’push rebels further away from Hama by seizing the entire southern part of the Idlib pocket up to Maarat al-Numan.’’

In such a scenario, Turkish-backed rebels are likely to be the first targets of the offensive, the article noted.

Recent shelling points to Jisr al-Shughour as another potential early target, however the steep terrain, surrounding the city would make it difficult, Balanche wrote.

Seizing al-Ghab plain, however, the author noted, would be easier with the remaining pro-Turkish rebels in the south finding themselves encircled and forced to surrender.

‘’Such a campaign would exact the heaviest toll on JWT, damaging Turkey’s credibility with local allies who have committed to stand against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). Ankara demands that the offensive be postponed, but Damascus, Tehran, and Moscow argue that Turkey has not fulfilled its commitment to eliminate HTS, so they have no choice but to cleanse Idlib themselves,’’ Balanche said.

The first round of the battle against Turkish-backed rebels may not be so bloody, according to Balanche, however, if and when a second round is launched against HTS in northern Idlib, it may be a whole new ball game.