For about two months, it has seemed that an offensive by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Iran, and Russia into Idlib was imminent, with disastrous humanitarian and strategic consequences. On Monday, an agreement was reached between Turkey and Russia that put a halt to this prospect, at least for now. There is good reason to think the pro-Assad forces are delaying, rather than cancelling, their plans to reconquer Idlib, but the extra time gives space to Turkey to alter the terms politically.
The Astana process—the political track over Syria set up in late 2016, involving Russia, Iran, and Turkey—created a series of “de-escalation zones” in May 2017. Covering northern Homs, the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, Deraa in the south, and Idlib, the ostensible purpose of these zones was to reduce violence. In fact, as with all previous ceasefire agreements, the regime coalition used the calm on some fronts to concentrate resources on another—and systematically liquidated the de-escalation zones, one after the other, until by late July there was only Idlib left.
Almost immediately, the Assad regime indicated its desire to move into Idlib. And it was clear how the attack would be framed: in the language of the War on Terror. Idlib was, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a “festering abscess” that had to be eliminated, and he hoped the West would “not obstruct an anti-terror operation”.
The most dominant military force in Idlib is Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the successor to Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch. HTS has broken from al-Qaeda’s command structure and al-Qaeda’s loyalists have regrouped into a faction calling itself Tandheem Hurras al-Deen. Nonetheless, HTS remains jihadist in ideology and is registered as a terrorist group, including now by Turkey. The “de-escalation agreement” had provisions calling for the removal of terrorists, and the pro-Assad coalition has used this pretext to politically prepare the ground for an assault on Idlib.
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