Syria’s Idlib: Limited offensive to enforce Sochi Accord

Syria’s Idlib: Limited offensive to enforce Sochi Accord

Bashar al-Assad’s regime started an aerial assault against rebel-held areas in northwest Syria in late April. This was amid fears of potential escalation that will lead to bloodshed and displaced refugees. However, further military escalation will not proceed without striking a deal guaranteeing the interest of all countries involved. The purpose of the offensive is capturing the M4 and M5 highways from Aleppo to Hama and Lattakia, as agreed in Sochi.

Assad’s forces supported by Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and other militias started recapturing rebel-held enclaves. This has led to the latter having undergone an exodus from lost territories towards Idlib. More than 3 million Syrians currently live there. Idlib, along with Hama and western Aleppo, forms the buffer zone. Russia, Turkey, and Iran agreed upon this in Sochi. A host of armed factions, among them Hay’a2t Tahreer al-Sham (previously al-Nusra), al-Qaeda’s branch, have been under Turkey’s protection in Idlib. Although Assad has continuously vowed to retake “every inch” of Syria from his foes, it is a undoable bid in the foreseeable future for the situation is more complicated than it looks.

Assad’s allies

From the outset, Iran and Hezbollah have played limited roles in Syria. This includes training, assisting and advising the regime’s forces. Hezbollah and Shi’a militias from Iraq and Afghanistan intervened to protect Shi’a Shrines, namely that of Al-Sayyida Zeinab, in Damascus’ suburb. However, when rebels started closing down on the capital and Assad’s regime collapse loomed by mid-2012, Hezbollah started its gradual intervention to avoid such outcomes. By 2013, Hezbollah led-offensive along with the Syrian army to recapture al-Qusayr, a city that contours Lebanon’s eastern borders, had succeeded. This marked the first setback for the rebels but not the last.

Retaking al-Qusayr was strategically important. It cut the rebels smuggling route from Tripoli in northern Lebanon to Reef Dimashk, via al-Qusayr, and from there to all rebel strongholds. The area is an impenetrable fortress which made it a moral blow for anti-Assad fighters. This boosted the regime but was not enough for it to prevail over all territories in Syria. Hezbollah and Iran’s role expanded all over Syria, covering north to south via inland cities. This intervention strengthened the regime’s grip on regions that were previously captured by rebels. However, it also increased sectarian tensions and despise against Hezbollah among most Arab-Sunni population.

In 2015, Russia found its way into the Syrian quagmire and started increasing its role. Vladimir Putin first placed Russia “to provide serious training and logistical support” to the Syrian army and then through aerial buttress to Assad’s troops. Since the cold war, Syria has always been Russia’s staunch ally in the Middle East. Then, the Soviet Union had flooded the Syrian government with weapons, even prior to Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power

Russia in Syria

This contribution is more a Russian-Syrian partnership rather than a Putin-Assad cooperation. In other words, Syria forms the strategic depth for Russia in the region. This intervention raises Russia’s influence on the regional and international level. Furthermore, when the rebuilding of Syria begins, Russian companies will have priority among all those involved. The Russian involvement was a game changer and furthered the advantage of Assad and his allies on the ground; not only militarily, but also politically.

Russia pressed Middle Eastern countries, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, to reduce their intrusion and assistance for anti-Assad factions. This was directly translated on the ground when the Military Operation Center (MOC) operating from Jordan shut. The latter was an operative center gathering military and security personnel from countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, France, among others, that directed operations in southern Syria.

These events gave Assad leverage and pushed the Syrian army and its allies to recapture most of the Syrian territories. Namely in the south and in Damascus’ countryside, leaving only two parts outside the regime’s control: the north-west and north-east. The former is a Turkish-rebel controlled area as mentioned above, while the latter is an American-Kurdish dominated region. Therefore, Syria is currently divided into three zones, each protected by major regional or international player. For Assad, any military escalation on the ground will not be viable without a bilateral or even multilateral agreement. Consequently, the offensive in Idlib has been agreed upon by Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

The Idlib offensive

When the Sochi agreement took place, it was agreed that in the ensuing months, a demilitarized zone will be implemented up to 20 kilometers inside the buffer zone. However, this was not translated on the ground and armed factions did not retreat from these areas. Hence, the Syrian army and Russia initiated an attack to enforce the Sochi agreement. Since the offensive started, hundreds killed, including civilians, and thousands displaced amid concerns of further escalation.

However, any attempt by the regime to retake this area is more easily spoken of than accomplished. Since the eruption of the Syrian civil war, Turkey has found an opportunity to increase its regional role by backing armed factions in northern Syria. Once Idlib came under Turkey’s protection, any escalation became pegged to its approval. Any withdrawal on Turkey’s part would also require American approval to safeguard their interests. Sudden changes would undermine the American-backed Kurds in the north east, that Turkey consider a strategic threat and terrorist organization. Therefore, the current fight is limited and further escalation is not viable at this moment.

In conclusion

Syria is seeing “the steepest collapse of GDP” among any country since World War II. This offensive might give Assad’s regime a reprieve from focussing on economic sanctions and crisis by switching the Syrians’ attention to the battle. A source close to the regime confirmed on the condition of anonymity that the offensive is taking place on three fronts. Firstly, from Kbene/Bdama and al-Seryeniyye in eastern Lattakia, and therefore the Syrian army will be able to overlook Jesr al-Shoughour and it will be within firing distance. Secondly, from Kafarnaboude, Kal`at al-Madeek, and al-Habeet in southern Hama. Lastly, from al-Rashideen 4 in western Aleppo.

The source assured that the Russians are intensifying their aerial bombardment while the Syrian army is increasing its rockets and missiles shelling from ground. The offensive is limited to the Sochi agreement. It only targets safeguarding two major routes, the M4 and M5 highways from Aleppo to Hama and Lattakia. Any further escalation from both sides is likely to fail. Furthermore, the Turkish de facto buffer zone will remain intact until a beneficial deal for all involved parties is struck. At the moment, such a deal is far from happening.

About Author

Hadi Wahhab

I am Lebanese with a BA in business and management at the Université Saint Joseph in Beirut. I accomplished my Masters in International Affairs in the Lebanese American University and am currently a Doctoral Researcher at the University of Exeter. I am specializing in Hezbollah and my PhD title is the following: “Hezbollah: a regional armed non-state actor”. I will mainly be focusing on Lebanon and Syria, and occasionally on other Middle Eastern countries.