May 22, 2019
IntelBrief: Last Stand in Idlib?
The Syrian government and its allies, Russia and Iran, are making moves to retake Idlib from the last remaining pocket of rebel fighters holed up in the province. A combination of Russian airpower and Syrian Army ground forces have moved aggressively to retake sections of southwestern Idlib, demonstrating little regard for civilian casualties. Schools and hospitals have been bombed and shelled. The rebels have fought back, leaving civilians in the cross-fire. Over 100 civilians have been killed in the past two weeks alone. Idlib is the last bastion of densely concentrated rebel fighters and an area the regime is intent on taking back through sheer force.
In September 2018, Russia and Turkey helped broker a cease-fire, which was supposed to see Ankara tame Idlib’s rebel groups and ultimately disarm them, including the extremist-dominated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and its al-Qaeda-linked allies. Disarming battle-hardened insurgents, particularly those with ties to al-Qaeda, seems far-fetched, and Ankara has never produced a clear strategy for accomplishing this goal. The hope is that once Idlib is pacified, the Assad regime will be able to reopen trading routes vital to rebuilding the Syrian economy. The Russians are also concerned, as they have been throughout the conflict, about protecting an air base in Latakia. The Kremlin intervened in Syria beginning in September 2015 to bolster Assad and maintain influence as one of Syria's longtime allies, both for strategic reasons and as a partner for future Russian arms deals.
Nearly 200,000 residents of Idlib have reportedly been displaced and forced to flee the fighting. United Nations officials have warned of a worsening humanitarian crisis. Since the war in Syria began, Idlib’s population swelled to nearly three million, doubling from pre-wartime estimates. Turkey, which borders all of northern Syria, has been flooded with more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees. Ankara is duly concerned about a deteriorating situation if even more refugees attempt to cross the border into Turkey. Recent reports suggest that Moscow stepped in to help engineer a unilateral cease-fire, although it remains unclear to what extent sporadic attacks are still happening. Perhaps reflecting its leverage in Syria, Washington has remained astonishingly quiet on events in Idlib. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo raised the issue during his recent trip to Russia, only to be told that Moscow's objectives were to expand a buffer zone to protect its airbase, which has been attacked in the past.
Just this week, a group of about 400 lawmakers in the U.S. called on President Trump to demonstrate American leadership in Syria by playing a significant role in ending the conflict. But Washington may have missed its opportunity to make any meaningful difference in Syria, where it now appears inevitable that Assad will remain in power while Moscow and Tehran enjoy the spoils of victory. The U.S. has primarily remained focused on northeastern Syria and attempted to ensure that remnants of the Islamic State do not reconstitute, although pockets of fighters have regrouped throughout the country. Those fighters continue to launch sporadic attacks, including ambushes and politically motivated assassinations. Even when the major powers involved push hard for an agreement to end the violence, as will inevitably happen, getting rebel groups and terrorist organizations to agree to or even recognize the legitimacy of political negotiations will be difficult. This is especially true as these same major powers provide covert assistance to those violent groups they view as useful in helping achieve their overall objectives in Syria's complex civil war.
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