Thomas Pierret | Senior researcher at CNRS-Institut de Recherches et d’Etudes sur les Mondes Arabes et Musulmans
The most likely scenario is a limited regime offensive that will target the periphery of Idlib Governorate from the west, the south, and the east. A more ambitious operation designed to bring the entire region back under regime control would be unacceptable to Turkey, because such an operation would create a massive movement of civilians and rebel fighters (including jihadi groups) toward the Turkish border and the regions controlled by Ankara inside Syrian territory.
Turkey has the military means to hinder a regime offensive, directly or indirectly, and, given the stakes, it probably has the will to do so. Russia also knows that an all-out attack on Idlib would severely degrade its relationship with Turkey. It has been said that Moscow’s ability to restrain Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iran is limited, but given the relative strength of rebel defenses in Idlib, attacking forces would have great difficulties in advancing if they were denied Russian air support.
Hadeel al-Saidawi | Visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, where her research is focused on Syria
As much as the Syrian regime would want to capitalize on the momentum of its victory in southwestern Syria, the situation in Idlib is much more complex. Russia, at least in the short term, and Turkey both have an interest in avoiding a full-scale military operation and ultimately reaching an outcome that could be similar to the one in Busra al-Sham, where factions handed over their weapons. However, it remains unclear to what extent Russia could deter Syrian President Bashar al-Assad from initiating an offensive, or for how long Russian and Turkish interests will converge.
Russia’s Syria envoy, Alexander Lavrentyev, recently said that “any large-scale operation in Idlib [City] is out of the question,” and he placed the issue of a refugee return as a top priority of the recent Sochi talks. A military offensive, then, would jeopardize Russia’s efforts that began with the return of around a thousand refugees from Lebanon earlier this month. That is where Russia’s and Turkey’s interests meet. Idlib Governorate is currently home to almost 2.5 million people, half of them internally displaced persons, while there also are some 70,000 moderate or extremist combatants present there. Any regime offensive would create a new refugee crisis that Turkey would not allow, in addition to the exodus of extreme radical groups linked to the Islamic State and Al-Qa‘eda.
At the same time, Turkey and Russian must find a solution for Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and foreign fighters. Ankara has, arguably, attempted since February to unify Idlib’s major factions under the National Liberation Front, which is expected to try to eliminate the hegemony of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham militarily in case it refuses to dissolve itself. However, the new formation’s ability to do so is unclear.
Amid news that Assad’s forces are grouping near Idlib, we might see a limited military operation south and west of Jisr al-Shoughour in order to reinforce the larger area around the Russian Hmeimin airbase. What happens after that would be contingent on Russian and Turkish efforts.
Charles Lister | Senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., and manager of its Counterterrorism Project, author of The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency (Oxford University Press)
Given previous precedents elsewhere in Syria, I find it hard to imagine the Assad regime won’t stand by its words and eventually initiate a major campaign in Idlib. This will probably be preceded by or done in sync with a series of “reconciliation” agreements along the periphery of opposition areas—a process that is already underway. The process of getting to this point, though, may still be some time off. Turkey’s substantial and risk-laden investment in establishing deterrence mechanisms in Idlib should not be discounted. Moreover, recent threats by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units to assist the regime (whether it is bluster or not) will only serve to harden Ankara’s position of total opposition to hostilities. It will take quite some maneuvering by Damascus and some insignificant shifts from Moscow to convince Ankara to get out of their way.
For now, my eye is on jihadi spoilers who may, in fact, seek to spark a conflict to rid the area of less committed, moderate fighters and leave behind others who, in their eyes, would be more vulnerable to joining their gritty, guerrilla struggle.
Alexey Khlebnikov | Middle East expert at the Russian International Affairs Council and a senior fellow at Eurasia Strategies, a Russian consulting group
The Syrian conflict has been following a familiar pattern. Deescalation zones have been gradually eliminated and the Syrian armed forces, with the support of Russian air power, have organized offensives allowing Moscow to strike deals to evacuate a large number of armed rebels to Idlib Governorate. As a result, Idlib remains the only deescalation zone out of Syrian government control where armed opposition groups and civilians, as well as terrorist groups, have been concentrated. Because of this mix, Idlib has also become a sort of a gray zone for Moscow.
The situation in Idlib is complicated by the Turkish factor. Idlib has been a Turkish zone of influence for quite a while, as Ankara has supported opposition groups there. Moreover, under the Astana agreements, Turkey was supposed to provide security for the area, setting up twelve observation posts for that purpose. Ankara is a Russian partner in Syria and a guarantor of the Astana process. Moscow needs Turkey on board to justify its approach to the Syrian conflict and counterbalance Western and NATO criticism of it. However, with the recent military successes of Syrian regime forces and Russia’s increased assistance, Astana’s role is gradually diminishing, partly shown by the fact that the most recent round of talks was held in Sochi, not the Kazakh capital.
To be consistent with its policies in Syria, it is crucial for Russia to ultimately return Idlib to Syrian government control. Yet, at the same time, Moscow does not want a confrontation with Turkey over the governorate. In recent months there have been several mortar and drone attacks from Idlib Governorate against Russian military personnel, which have given Moscow a legitimate reason to push Ankara toward a plan acceptable to both Turkey and the Syrian government, one that would leave the latter in control of Idlib, but with Turkish interests taken into account.
It is also worth bearing in mind that Russia is seeking a return of Syrian refugees to their homes and Turkey is seen as a crucial partner in this regard as it hosts the largest number of refugees. This means that any major military offensive against Idlib from the Russian side is now off the table, because otherwise it would cause another major refugee flow toward Turkey’s borders, which goes against Moscow’s and Ankara’s plans.
Another important factor is the Kurds, who are most likely going to be a part of any formula for Idlib. Recently, contacts have intensified between Syrian Kurds and Damascus and the Kurds and Russia. The Kurds are considering an option to make a deal with Damascus that would probably give them some sort of autonomy, while Damascus would get back its oil and gas fields and refineries. Undoubtedly, a final outcome in Idlib is also about Turkish security concerns and the guarantees that Ankara can eventually receive in any Syrian regime-Kurdish deal as a tradeoff for Idlib.