Putin’s Idlib Operation Plan Derailed by Erdogan at Sochi Summit

Russian President Vladimir Putin hoped a Sochi summit with his Iranian and Turkish counterparts (Aug. 6-7) would produce a sensible tripartite consensus for the liberation of Idlib. But the meeting sank into impasse over Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s overweening claims. Putin had been looking forward to this operation going forward before the end of summer, with the same smooth success as the recovery of the south and southwest, where the Syrian army and its pro-Iranian allies were now sitting on the borders with Jordan and Syria. No one now doubts that Syrian President Bashar Assad has, with the help of Russia, Iran and Hizballah, won the civil war waged against him since 2011. A pin stuck anywhere on the Syrian map today finds them in control everywhere, barring only Idlib, the last rebel-held stronghold remaining in the country, without whose recovery victory is incomplete.

One of Syria’s 14 provinces, the Idlib Governorate is situated in the northeast on the Turkish border. Its present population is estimated at 2.5 to 3.3 million people, of whom at least 1.2 million are displaced refugees from homes in battle-torn regions. The pre-war population of this largely rural region was no more than 750,000 inhabitants. But during the war, Idlib became a rebel stronghold. Today it is under the rule of 70,000 armed men, many of whom belong to extremist groups formerly, or still, affiliated, with Al Qaeda. Since Turkey has shut its border against more Syrian refugees, the population there is trapped at the mercy of the armed rebels, on the one hand, and their prospective Syrian “liberators,” on the other.

After the meeting in Sochi, Putin realized he must hold Assad back from a precipitate Syrian campaign to liberate Idlib until major obstacles were removed:

  • As matters stand now, victory is far less certain than a human disaster. Experienced and committed jihadists have mingled among the population, which is dispersed in largely rural mountainous terrain. Russia and Iran combined don’t have enough troops to beat them.
  • The 70,000 armed rebels, although split into many factions, will fight to the end if attacked. They believe they can count on Turkey to save them from defeat.
  • Turkey won’t ditch the Syrian rebel groups it has fostered in Idlib, unlike the US, Israel and Jordan which abandoned the Syrian rebel groups of southern Syria. Erdogan will keep them in the game for two reasons:

(1) To prevent the return of the Assad regime. He is saving Idlib for himself as an important sphere of Turkish influence.

(2) As self-anointed No. 1 Muslim power, Turkey can’t be seen selling out anti-Assad groups in Idlib, although some are jihadists affiliated to Al Qaeda.

  • A special Russian envoy warned Damascus that “any large-scale operation in Idlib is out of the question.” Assad has nevertheless publicly signaled his resolve to retake the province by force. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov contradicted his own envoy on Aug. 2 by calling for “a final blow to terrorists” in northwestern Syria.
  • The most aggressive and dominant armed group in the province is Hayat Tahrir-Sham (HTS), the former Nusra Front which once served Al Qaeda as its Syrian arm. The HTS has established a civilian “Salvation Government” to provide the population with essential services, from education and health care to electricity and water, with a view to expanding its political base as the ruling government. Some of its units are reorganized as local police forces and a former Political Office is forging relations with foreign governments. The HTS is now a force that cannot be ignored.

But for all these reasons, Turkey can’t be ignored either, given its strong foothold in Idlib and close ties with the HTS. To cement its holding, the Turkish army has established 12 “observation posts” in a ring around opposition-held territory, from western Aleppo in the south through Idlib and into northern Hama and back through western Idlib’s border with Latakia. These posts are fast becoming fortresses, augmented by barbed wire fences, reinforced concrete walls and fleets of armored vehicles and heavy weapons. Working with Ankara has given the HTS chief Abu Mohammed al-Jolani protection for his long-term interests.

Confronted with Erdogan’s assertive claim to Idlib, it is feared in Moscow, Damascus and Tehran that the HTS and fellow pro-Turkey proxies operating around Aleppo and the north will come together to seize control not just Idlib, but most of northern Syria.

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