Syrian regime poised to attack final ‘pocket of terrorism’ in Idlib
When Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on Tuesday described Idlib as a “pocket of terrorism” and said that “we know the Syrian armed forces are getting ready to solve this problem,” he was referring to the fact thatthe only way to solve the issue of Idlib province is either a massive military attack or a political solution.
It has become apparent that the Syrian Army is readying itself to resolve the issue militarily, following the success of the recent battle to liberate southwestern Syria, where it regained three provinces.
The situation in the northern governorate of Idlib, which accommodates about 4 million people, is complicated as a number of factors make its fate very difficult to predict. Idlib borders Turkey and is now a buffer zone between the Syrian Army and their allies on one side and the Turkish forces on the other. This justifies why there is a dire need for international negotiations.
The fate of Idlib province — the last stronghold of the armed opposition — depends on talks between Turkey and Russia and what they will do to ensure the safety of millions of civilians in that region.
The Syrian Army has started mobilizing forces to the front lines in Idlib in preparation for the last battle before a political solution is reached in Syria. However, the green light for the attack on Idlib is still pending, waiting for the result of Friday’stripartite summit in Tehran.
The large size of Idlib and the complexities of launching a military operation there will be costly to the Syrian Army and its allies, as the militants also have large forces and heavy weaponry. Of course, Turkey has its concerns as the province is by its border, and this could lead to political, economic, and military and security issues inside Turkey, at a time when it is witnessing political and economic hardship.
UN envoy's description of Al-Nusra fighters as terrorists capable of producing chemical weapons shows that an international green light has been given to liquidate them.
Turkey wants to separate the terrorists from the other opposition groups in Idlib, but Russia believes there is no distinction as both are deemed terrorists. The Turks propose that its army and the Free Syrian Army factions be given time to isolate the fighters of the Al-Nusra Front before a military operation to eliminate them is launched, as was done in Operation Euphrates Shield. The Russians totally disagree and would like to rush and remove all terrorists from Idlib as soon as possible.
Moscow is negotiating with Ankara plans similar to the operation in Daraa in the south, which started with a military action to completely eliminate Al-Nusra and then moved on to negotiations between the Syrian government and the opposition to help establish joint local councils. In Idlib, this could also see a Turkish-Russian military deployment to ensure the safety of civilians.
Whatever the scenario surrounding the battle of Idlib, the toll amongst civilians will be very high as, in all previous battles and settlements, it was Idlib that became the safe haven for civilians and exile for opposition fighters. But there is nowhere else for them to go now as this battle represents the end of the war in Syria.
Meanwhile, an American military intervention will only happen if there is any change in the balance of power on the ground. Some sources say the US will pre-emptively strike the Syrian Army in Idlib because they are afraid that, once this battle starts, it is inevitable that the regime will be victorious. And the more territory that the Syrian state controls, the more bargaining cards it has.
Since the US does not want to leave Syria empty-handed, Washington is trying to put pressure on other fronts controlled by Kurdish groups loyal to them by strengthening its military presence in the east of Syria. Thus, if Idlib is regained by the Syrian Army, the West and the US will have nothing to negotiate about with Russia and Syria.
In a press conference held in Geneva last week, UN Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura called for a humanitarian corridor to be opened to allow civilians to leave Idlib. This suggests a repetition of what happened elsewhere in the last 12 months, but with one major difference, which is that no other province will be out of the Syrian Army’s control after Idlib.
There are several important points that can be inferred from his statement. His stance against some of the groups who fight in Idlib started with his description of Al-Nusra Front fighters as terrorists who must be defeated, which shows that an international green light has been given to liquidate them and that they will be excluded from any settlement. And when he said that not only the Syrian Army has the ability to produce chemical weapons, but also Al-Nusra, this is another signal that the international community is now against terrorism in Idlib.
- Maria Dubovikova is a prominent political commentator, researcher and expert on Middle East affairs. She is president of the Moscow-based International Middle Eastern Studies Club (IMESClub). Twitter: @politblogme