Idlib on 'knife’s edge' as Syrian government prepares for an assault: Experts

Idlib, a strategic governorate that borders Turkey and hosts over two million people, is the last major territory still in militant hands.

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – Experts say the Syrian government is getting closer to launch an assault on rebel-held northwestern Idlib, which according to the United Nations could displace over 700,000 people.

Idlib, a strategic governorate that borders Turkey and hosts over two million people, is the last major territory still in militant hands.

A part of it is held by the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), that the US links to al-Qaeda, and another part of it is linked to rebels backed by Turkey.

“I don’t know if the Turkish authority will allow the people to flee to Turkey or not, but for sure it will be a humanitarian catastrophe if the UN keeps ignoring and abandoning the civilians being under bombing of Assad and Russian forces,” Khaled Khatib, a spokesperson for the civil aid group, the White Helmets, told Kurdistan 24.

“We have already met with some other aid organizations to prepare for that case, but we don’t know how big the offensive will be,” he added.

The White Helmets are afraid that Russia, who opposes the group, will bomb them.

“We are afraid of being bombed in our centers,” he added. “It is difficult to predict what will happen, anyway, we are working on emergency plans for all the scenarios.”

Turkey has set up several observation points in Idlib Province in coordination with Russia. But Turkey will unlikely stop the upcoming Syrian government offensive, that experts say will be launched in one or two weeks.

Russian President Vladimir Putin met with the Turkish and Russian defense and foreign ministers, and the intelligence chiefs of both countries on Aug. 24 to discuss the situation in Idlib.

According to Nicholas A. Heras, a Syria expert at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, time is running out for Turkey.

“The situation in Greater Idlib is on the knife’s edge. Russia is negotiating from a position of strength: either Turkey does what needs to be done to remove al-Qaeda, and its fellow travelers from Greater Idlib or Assad will invade it,” he told Kurdistan 24.

“While the Trump team seems to prefer that Turkey addresses the al-Qaeda threat there, it also seems that US military and intelligence is quietly rooting for anyone, even Assad, to take care of this problem,” he added.

According to Fabrice Balanche, an associate professor at the University of Lyon 2, there are ongoing talks between Russia, Damascus, and Turkey to draw the borders of the battle.

“Turkey is negotiating with Russia until where the Syrian army can go,” he said.

“I think they [Damascas] want to take Idlib city, but Turkey would like to keep a buffer zone at the border for the IDPs and for the pro-Turkish rebels.”

Turkey fears thousands of refugees from Idlib would attempt to enter its borders.

Although Turkey prefers Damascus to hit only the HTS, the Syrian army would most likely also attack the pro-Turkish groups. “This angers Turkey,” Balanche said.

While it’s clear that Damascus will take parts of Idlib, the question remains what will happen with thousands of foreign jihadist fighters from different countries in Idlib, after the battle is over.

“Most likely, Turkey will transfer the jihadists to Afrin. This would be the best way for Turkey to protect Afrin from the comeback of the Kurds,” Balanche added.

Nevertheless, experts such as Aron Lund, a fellow with The Century Foundation, say there is still a lot that remains unclear about what has been agreed in Astana and in previous Turkish-Russian talks, and what Assad is gunning for in Idlib.

“But you need to take into account Russia’s need to treat Turkey with silk gloves as well as the Russians’ alliance with Assad and their own desire to see the Idlib enclave smashed and brought down to more manageable proportions,” he added.

“I think what that adds up to is probably a more limited offensive, and then they take things from there. It might be against Jisr al-Shughour or along the M5 highway near Aleppo, or to push the rebels further away from Hama,” he concluded.

However, Lund said there could also be a more ambitious attempt by Damascus to go deep into Idlib and reach the border or Fouaa and Kefraya.

“We’ll see,” he said.

Editing by Karzan Sulaivany