Idlib: The New Strategic Nucleus of the Battle Over Syria

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Idlib

TIC Brief l

Background: The Syrian military has ceased its offensive in Idlib since Turkey and Russia signed a ceasefire agreement in early March which stipulated the creation of a seven-mile (12km) “safety corridor” along the crucial M4 highway, which Russian and Turkish forces would jointly patrol. This agreement came in the wake of mobile battles between SAA and rebel forces which resulted in the former capturing significant areas in the embattled Idlib province. Had Turkey not intervened on rebel side, regime forces would have captured the last rebel bastion, albeit with heavy losses on both sides and a massive civilian exodus. Meanwhile, Turkey has been strengthening its checkpoints in Idlib and is training allied rebel forces, possibly to prepare for a future government assault.

Who has the strategic initiative in Idlib? Regime forces in their latest offensive were surprised by the Turkish drone war which shifted the strategic balance and resulted in massive material losses for SAA. However, in order to fend of repeated government assaults in Idlib, Turkey would have to commit itself more than ever before in Syrian civil war and that would not have been possible without engaging Syrian government forces directly. This would be unprecedented since until now Turkey has used its proxies to tie down large SAA in protracted urban warfare. Neither Turkey’s flagging economy nor its military restrictions would have enabled it to do that. Hence, sooner or later, the strategic initiative was bound to rest with Bashar’s forces that with Russian assistance would have uprooted rebellion in Idlib.

Who will control Idlib? For now, it seems that the stalemate will persist. All the warring parties have been hit hard by Covid-19 pandemic and have scrambled resources to counter its after effects. Meanwhile, Russia and Turkey have been conducting joint patrols along the M4 highway and the ceasefire between the two has largely held indicating the lack of willingness from both to go on the offensive. Syrian regime is likely to follow in Russia’s footstep and will respect ceasefire despite the fact that it is actually wining the war and is at the cusp of capturing Idlib.

Why is Idlib Important? A very important geographical and military factor is that, to the West, Idlib is very close to Latakia, where the Russian base of Khmeimimim is located, with more than 1,000 stable operatives, who are now part of the Russian defence apparatus, together with those of the Tartus naval base, where – at the air base near Latakia – also an important unit of the Sixth Directorate of the Russian Military Secret Service (GRU) operates.

What opposition forces are active in Idlib? Currently Idlib is not controlled by any majority jihadist group, but by an often vague balance among the many groups of the “holy war”, i.e. the Middle East and the other proxy wars, usually mediated by the Turkish Intelligence Services. It currently includes as many as 11 jihadist factions, but also nationalistic and mainly anti-Assad groups.

What type of Turkish forces are deployed in Idlib? The deployment of Erdogan’s forces in Idlib includes his five special forces, which depend only on the Chief of Staff and not on the classic territorial chain of command of the Turkish Armed Forces. It also includes some armoured units, light infantry units, i.e. real commandos, and the 5th Brigade, specialized in paramilitary operations and mountain warfare.

 

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