Two-month Idlib campaign nets little for Syria’s Assad

Syrian Civil Defense group known as the White Helmets, shows Civil Defense workers carrying an injured boy in a street that was hit by Syrian government airstrikes, in Jisr Al-Shughur, southwest of Idlib, Syria, Thursday, July 11, 2019. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets/AP)
Updated 13 July 2019

Two-month Idlib campaign nets little for Syria’s Assad

  • Despite the heavy bombardment, Assad’s troops have been unable to make any significant advances against Al-Qaeda-linked militants and other extremist groups who dominate Idlib province
  • Rather than a full-blown offensive to recover the province, which is packed with 3 million people, Assad’s government has for now restricted its assault to the edges of the province with the aim of reopening key highways crossing through rebel-held areas

BEIRUT: Two months of intensive airstrikes by Syrian government forces and their Russian allies, coupled with a fierce ground assault on rebel-controlled Idlib province, have killed hundreds of people and caused massive displacement while achieving little to no gain for President Bashar Assad.
Despite the heavy bombardment, Assad’s troops have been unable to make any significant advances against Al-Qaeda-linked militants and other extremist groups who dominate Idlib province, the last significant area held by opposition forces. Militant attacks have killed an average of more than a dozen soldiers and allied militiamen a day in recent weeks.
The struggling campaign underscores the limits of Syria’s and Russia’s airpower and inability to achieve a definitive victory in the country’s long-running civil war, now in its eighth year.
With crucial military assistance from Russia and Iran, Syrian troops have in the past few years recovered most other opposition-held parts of the country with crushing offensives and long-running sieges. In each of those places, rebels either surrendered or were forcibly exiled to Idlib, where they are now cornered with nowhere left to go. Bitter and desperate, they can only fight to the end. Abu Mohammed Al-Golani, the leader of the main Al-Qaeda-linked group in the region, has called on every able person to “perform his religious duty” and join the fight.
Sam Heller, a Syria expert with the International Crisis Group who closely follows the situation in the rebel-controlled area, said, “Idlib’s armed opposition may not be able to win an open battle for the northwest, but they can make a Syrian military victory terribly costly, maybe intolerably so.”
Politically, Idlib reflects the tug of war among international players supporting opposing sides of Syria’s conflict. A cease-fire brokered last September by Russia, a key ally of Assad, and Turkey, which supports the rebels, collapsed on April 30 when the government began its offensive following months of violations by both sides. Turkey, which hosts 3 million Syrian refugees, fears a full-blown government offensive would cause a new wave of displaced people heading toward its border, but it has been unable — or some say, unwilling — to control the rebels in Idlib that it supports.
Crucially, Iran-backed fighters, including members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group whose participation has been key in previous battles, have not joined fight for Idlib, deeming the region a low priority, unlike more strategic areas bordering Iraq and Lebanon. Even Russia hasn’t thrown all its weight into the fray and has continued to talk to Turkey about ways to reinstate the cease-fire.
Rather than a full-blown offensive to recover the province, which is packed with 3 million people, Assad’s government has for now restricted its assault to the edges of the province with the aim of reopening key highways crossing through rebel-held areas. But even that has proved futile as the rebels fight back aggressively.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor, 2,443 people have been killed since April 30. They include 629 civilians, among them 159 children. The dead also include 869 pro-government fighters and troops as well as 945 insurgents, according to the Observatory. Many more have been wounded and many villages destroyed, with the United Nations saying the fighting has displaced more than 330,000 from their homes. Many of them now live in overcrowded tents near the border with Turkey.
Spearheading the offensive on Idlib and northern parts of the central province of Hama is the government’s elite Tiger Force led by Brig. Gen. Suheil Al-Hassan, a Russian-backed Syrian officer who took credit for some of the biggest government victories in the eight-year conflict.
But he has not succeeded in breaking Idlib’s defenses and remains deadlocked. According to opposition activists, elite forces from the Republican Guards and the Fourth Division led by Assad’s younger brother, Maher, have recently started taking part in the offensive.
Opposition activists say government forces and their Russian allies have been targeting schools and medical centers, reportedly killing 10 medical staff since the offensive began, to make it difficult for the local population to stay. The tactic has been used by government troops elsewhere in Syria. Airstrikes have also targeted paramedics, killing four ambulance workers in recent weeks, activists say.
The Idlib offensive began with government forces capturing more than a dozen villages, including Qalaat Al-Madiq and Kfar Nabudah, which are considered the militants’ first line of defense of Idlib. Since then, Kfar Nabudah has changed hands several times. Insurgents later took government forces by surprise by launching an offensive and opening another front, in which they succeeded in capturing the villages of Madraset Al-Dahra, Tel Milh and Jubain. Repeated government attacks to retake the area were unsuccessful.
Mohammed Al-Ali, a journalist based in Idlib province, said that two months into the offensive the government now only controls the village of Qassabiyeh in Idlib as well as some dozen villages in northern Hama province and the town of Qalaat Al-Madiq.
Al-Ali said one of the insurgents’ biggest successes was opening the new front, in which they cut a main road linking the central city of Hama with government-held villages on the edge of Idlib.
“The rebels’ steadfastness and regime’s heavy losses made them fail to achieve advances similar to those they did at the start,” he said of the government offensive. He said anti-tank missiles were key in slowing the regime’s offensive.
The battle could last for months and claim more lives unless Turkey, Iran and Russia reach a new deal for the region similar to last year’s cease-fire. The faltering offensive could encourage Russia to reach such a deal with Turkey.
Turkey’s presidential spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, said Ankara is planning to host a summit between the leaders of the three nations in August to discuss Syria, mainly Idlib.
“The Syrian military’s inability so far to make more headway in Idlib does not mean it cannot ultimately achieve victory nationwide,” Heller, of Crisis Group, said. “It does show, however, that its military victory is contingent on politics that -are bigger than just Syria.”


Iranian foreign minister Zarif arrives in Biarritz during G7

Updated 25 August 2019

Iranian foreign minister Zarif arrives in Biarritz during G7

  • Iranian foreign ministry says Zarif will not hold talks with Trump and his team
  • Earlier Trump dampened down Emmanuel Macron's optimism on Iran talks

BIARRITZ, France: -Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif landed in the French seaside resort of Biarritz Sunday for talks during a G7 summit.

"Zarif... has arrived in Biarritz, where the G7 is being held, to continue talks regarding the recent measures between the presidents of Iran and France," foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said, referring to their efforts to salvage a nuclear deal.

Earlier, US President Donald Trump appeared to brush aside French efforts to mediate with Iran on Sunday, saying that while he was happy for President Emmanuel Macron to reach out to Tehran to defuse tensions he would carry on with his own initiatives.
European leaders have struggled to tamp down the brewing confrontation between Iran and the United States since Trump pulled his country out of Iran’s internationally-brokered 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions on the Iranian economy.
Macron, who has pushed mediation efforts in recent weeks to avoid a further deterioration in the region, had told LCI television that the G7 had agreed on joint action on Iran.
The French presidency said G7 leaders had even agreed that Macron should hold talks and pass on messages to Iran after they discussed the issue over dinner at a summit in southwestern France on Saturday evening.
However, Trump, who has pushed a maximum pressure policy on Iran, pushed back.
Asked if he had signed off on a statement that Macron intends to give on behalf of the G7 on Iran, Trump said:
“I haven’t discussed this. No I haven’t,” he told reporters, adding that Macron and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe were free to talk to Iran.
“We’ll do our own outreach, but, you know, I can’t stop people from talking. If they want to talk, they can talk.”
Macron, who has taken the lead to defuse tensions fearing that a collapse of the nuclear deal could set ablaze the Middle East, met Zarif on Friday. The aim was to discuss proposals that could ease the crisis, including the idea of reducing some US sanctions or providing Iran with an economic compensation mechanism.
Macron appeared to backtrack on his own team’s comments later, saying there was no formal mandate from the G7 leaders to pass a message to Iran.
Highlighting just how difficult agreeing on concrete measures between allies is, Macron said the leaders’ views had converged on not wanting Iran to acquire a nuclear bomb and ensuring peace and security in the Middle East.
He was supposed to discuss those ideas with Trump on the sidelines of the G7, which also comprises Britain, Germany, Italy, Canada, Japan and the EU.
“Everyone wants to avoid a conflict, Donald Trump was extremely clear on that point,” Macron told LCI.
“We have to continue to take initiatives and in the coming weeks that on the one hand there are no more Iranian decisions that contradict this objective and that we open new negotiations,” Macron said without giving details.
In response to the tougher US sanctions and what it says is the inability of European powers party to the deal — France, Britain and Germany, to compensate it for its lost oil revenue, Tehran has responded with a series of moves, including retreating from some of its commitments to limit its nuclear activity made under the deal.
The United States has made no indication it will ease any sanctions and it is unclear what kind of compensation mechanism Macron wants to offer Iran given at this stage a proposed trade channel for humanitarian and food exchanges with Iran is still not operational.
Macron has also said that in return for any concessions he would expect Iran to comply fully with the nuclear deal and for Iran to engage in new negotiations that would include its ballistic missile program and regional activities.