The Idlib offensive is poised to begin. Moscow brushed off US President Donald Trump’s tweeted warning Monday night, Sept. 3 to hold back from “recklessly attacking” Idlib. In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov rejected Trump’s warning and said the Syrian army was “getting ready” to clear out a “nest of terrorists.”
In Syria, Russian jets resumed their heavy bombardments on the rebel-hold province, after a 22-day pause, to soften the coming resistance. They targeted the arms and ammunition stores of the main anti-Assad group, the Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS). At least 8 people were killed. The first Russian special ops units were on the ground as markers for the Russian bombers and artillery contingents had penetrated HTS-held territory, including the town of Idlib where the rebel group maintains its key command posts.
Clearly, the 30 Russian bombers and fighters deployed to the region in the past ten days and the 24 warships taking part in a large-scale naval exercise in the eastern Mediterranean, will not be returning to their Black Sea and Russian bases when the drill ends on Sept. 8. They will stay on for the Idlib operation.
The Syrian army and pro-Iranian Iraqi, Afghan and Pakistani militias – totaling some 35,000 fighters – are poised to drive into Idlib province along four routes: two columns heading west from Aleppo and two north from Latakia and Hama.
Duly warned about the coming grand offensive, rebel forces have been blowing up bridges and roads to stall their enemies’ advance into the province.
Putin’s determination to put the final seal on Russia’s intervention to save Syria for Bashar Assad is not unexpected. After fully backing Syrian-Iranian-Hizballah battles for the recovery of lost regions around Damascus and southwestern Syria at all costs, he could hardly stop at the last rebel bastion of Idlib, without forfeiting the military credibility he fought for and won in the past year.
On Wednesday, Sept. 5, Russia’s deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov told a news conference in Moscow that the “military situation in the Syrian rebel-held province of Idlib would become clearer after, among other things, the leaders of the three guarantor states [Russia, Iran, Turkey] hold talks in Tehran on Friday.”
Was Moscow holding back? In fact, Putin was only waiting to see how Ambassador James Jeffrey, the new US Representative for Syria Engagement fared in Ankara on Wednesday, Sept. 5 in his mission to forestall the Idlib offensive. Washington calculated that Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan holds the key and getting him to use it is a matter of bargaining.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar disclosed that he had told the US envoy, that “Kurdish militants must completely abandon Syria” as his government’s price for pulling out of the Idlib operation.
DEBKA Weekly’s Washington and Ankara sources have learned more: Erdogan agreed to act on the US request to press Putin and Rouhani to delay the Idlib campaign when he met them in Tehran on Friday. The Turkish president promised to present them with two proposals: (1) A delay of several days – up to two weeks – for the intensive negotiations ongoing with rebel groups to bear fruit – at least until after the UN Security Council debate starting on Friday is concluded. (2) The separation of two issues: the fate of the Hayat al Tahrir al Sham (HTS), which Erdogan had backed and was now prepared to designate as terrorists, who must be neutralized and disarmed; and the future of Idlib province, another issue subject to time-consuming debate.
When the attack goes through, Erdogan insists on immunity for the Turkish proxy Syrian rebel militias, which are trained and armed by Ankara.
The Russian president may feel bound to reject Erdogan’s proposals by his commitment to back Iran against rising US-Israeli military pressure. For Putin, it is important to show the Middle East that Moscow stands by its allies. Backing down on their joint Idlib offensive would be interpreted in Washington and the states of the region as reneging on its commitment to Tehran (DEBKA Weekly 815: Putin Acts to Deepen Iran’s Military Grip on Syria. Challenges the US.) Putin may therefore decide to go through with the Idlib campaign – even at the risk of a military clash with the United States as well as Israel.