A version of this article was published at The Arab Weekly
Bashar al-Assad’s regime, supported by Russia and (in a more deniable form) Iran, began an offensive against the last insurgent-held enclave in Syria, Idlib, in the last days of April. Up until a month ago, this looked like an embarrassing fiasco: with a minimal increase in Turkish support to its rebel proxies, the pro-Assad forces had been able to gain about one-percent of the territory in the southern part of “Greater Idlib”. In the last fortnight, however, the pro-Assad coalition has made important breakthroughs that could prove decisive.
The Assad regime declared a ceasefire in Idlib on 1 August; it was quickly clear this was meaningless and the regime itself openly repudiated the ceasefire within four days. Savage aerial attacks recommenced on rebel bastions like Kafr Zayta, Latamina, and Khan Shaykhun, the latter a key focus of the ground offensive from the pro-Assad forces that tried to besiege northern Hama. At the other end of the Idlib pocket, around Kabana, administratively part of Latakia governorate, the pro-Assad coalition launched an assault clearly intended to stretch insurgent capacity.
Though thousands more people were displaced by indiscriminate Assad regime and Russian airstrikes, insurgent coordination—between the Turkish-supported mainstream rebels and the jihadists of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)—remained relatively solid. Other Turkish proxies from Efrin even entered Idlib to fortify insurgent lines, a proposal that HTS had heretofore vetoed. The pro-Assad forces are still struggling to make any headway on the Kabana front, but the Hama front has now begun to break their way.
There has never been any doubt that Assad and Iran regard the recapture of Idlib—and every other inch of Syrian territory—as an existential security issue and would only allow the area to remain outside of its control for as long as it was forcibly prevented from doing otherwise. Likewise, there was no doubt that when the moment came for the Assad/Iran system to make its move on Idlib, it would be assisted by Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Whatever daylight there is between Moscow and Tehran over Syria, it has never and will never amount to an exploitable schism. That the Russia-Iran strategic relationship has been misread by America, Israel, and—most important in this case—Turkey remains one of the enduring mysteries of the Syrian war.
Turkey arranged an Idlib ceasefire with Russia at Sochi in September 2018 that was welcomed internationally as a reprieve. It was a poisoned offering. On its own terms, the accord put the initiative in the hands of the pro-Assad forces. By laying the emphasis on the terrorism issue related to HTS, and conditioning the truce on Ankara dismantling HTS—something the Turks could not do, and which would only have smoothed the way for the pro-Assad offensive had it succeeded—it left the Russians with a standing pretext. This dynamic has now played out.
When Putin met with French President Emmanuel Macron in France on Monday, the Russian ruler was able to in effect say he was respecting Macron’s call for implementing the Sochi agreement—by not preventing the Assad offensive that was going to “end these terrorist threats”. Sochi “never said that in Idlib terrorists would feel comfortable”, Putin added. It is little wonder Putin felt free to humiliate Macron in his own capital given his generally cringing tone and approach. After all, Putin brazenly interfered in France’s democracy to try to prevent Macron being elected and here Macron was offering a “multilateral … architecture” between the European Union and Russia based on “trust”.
The final hurdle was Turkey. In May 2018, Ankara completed its twelfth and final observation post in Idlib. These positions were understood to be political tripwires that were essentially militarily indefensible. The thinking went that, first, Moscow would prevent the pro-Assad coalition attacking Turkish positions because it wanted to keep its entente with Turkey so it could continue to sow divisions in NATO, and, second, Turkey actually could escalate if challenged. As mentioned above, the first assumption was deeply flawed, and it was up to Turkey to demonstrate the second when it was tested. This did not happen.
By Thursday, the pro-Assad coalition had captured Khan Shaykhun, severing the northern Hama portion of “Greater Idlib” and besieging a pocket that includes and a Turkish observation post at Morek. Any deterrent effect the Turkish observation posts had evaporates if Ankara’s reaction to this aggression is anything but escalatory force—and there is no indication Turkey is thinking in such terms.
To the contrary, it seems likely that Turkey will opt for an evacuation, possibly arranged through the Russians. Any Turkish deal with Moscow to recover its own people will mean even further concessions to be paid by Ankara’s rebel allies, and this would only compound a situation where there is every indication that rebel morale is breaking.
Accusations of treachery are beginning to be exchanged between insurgents, a tell-tale sign of an impending loss when factions try to pre-emptively assign blame. The sheer scale of the casualties inflicted by the pro-Assad coalition’s increased use of indiscriminate air power has done much to bring this about, but recent events are only part of the story. The attrition and demoralization as the revolution realised its defeat and its remnants came under foreign influence are trends that hollowed out Idlib’s defences long ago.