Battles of Idlib and Yarmouk not the last challenges for Assad
At opposite ends of Syria two key recent battles offered an insight in the country’s future: In Idlib in the northwest, opposition and jihadist forces including Jabhat al-Nusra took control of a provincial capital for only the second time in four years of revolt and war. South in the Yarmouk Palestinian camp, an impoverished Damascus suburb controlled by rebels and besieged by the government since July 2013, Islamic State (ISIS) forces gained a dominant foothold, putting it closer to the steps of the presidential palace than it ever had been, before pulling out to allow its local ally Jabhat al-Nusra take control.
But Syrian government forces are far from finished with Idlib. President Bashar Assad’s most capable battlefield operator, Colonel Suheil al-Hassan, has been called in to lead plans to retake the city. In less than a week, his forces managed to ambush, kill and flummox jihadist fighters on the city’s outskirts resulting in the deaths of dozens.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon described the situation in Yarmouk as the “deepest circle of hell”.
Sources in Syria, who asked not to be named, say the regime is preparing to “level” Idlib by means of a massive air assault in the coming days or weeks. A repeat of the February 2012 shelling operation and demolition of Homs’ Baba Amr may be in the cards should government forces first succeed in driving rebels out of surrounding towns to the north. It’s worth remembering government forces chose to withdraw from Idlib for apparently strategic reasons in late March, not because they fought to the last man and were defeated outright.
Idlib’s importance dwarfs Raqqa’s, the only other Syrian provincial capital to fall to opposition forces. Idlib sits 25 kilometres from the Turkish border from where jihadists have been able to transfer weapons and fighters for several years. More important is Idlib’s proximity to the Aleppo-Damascus highway – just 20 kilometres – which government forces need to ensure Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, is not cut off from the rest of government-held Syria. Losing overland access to Aleppo would amount to one of the most serious blows to Damascus since the revolt began.
South of Damascus in the besieged Yarmouk camp, jihadist groups are also advancing. Rebels and jihadists first gained access to Yarmouk through neighbouring Hajar al-Aswad in 2012 and have steadily secured control of what has become a critical entrance for opposition fighters to Damascus from the south, despite a government siege that has hurt the remaining civilians there.
For the Syrian government, the first line of defence today is around Batiqa Square at the northern entrance to Yarmouk camp. Here, hundreds of militia fighters have been stationed for almost three years on the north and eastern verges of the square; snipers stationed in the towers to the north make it impossible for civilians to enter or leave the camp.
Much of the regime’s defences deployed to protect Damascus proper from the southern suburbs that include Yarmouk are made up of Shabiha groups commanded by forces from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, a Palestinian militia that has remained loyal to the regime.
But even as ISIS forces have made headlines by advancing on Yarmouk, the regime can call upon some of the Middle East’s best-trained Shia militiamen, including many Lebanese and Iranians, who are protecting the Saida Zeinab shrine just eight kilometres to the southeast. The regime would much like to “level” Yarmouk, as it did in Baba Amr three years ago, but such a move would cause outrage among Palestinians and Arabs around the region, and the jihadists know this.
Numerous battles and incidents over the past three years have been framed as “turning points” that place the Assad regime, or opposition forces, on the front foot. Neither Idlib nor Yarmouk alone will decide the outcome of the war but what happens in both places over the coming weeks may point to the emergence of a broader pattern. Whether that points to a more resilient or weaker Damascus government remains to be seen.