Foreign influence sinks rebels’ morale to its lowest in Idlib

There was no doubt that, when the moment came for the Assad/Iran system to make its move on Idlib, it would be assisted by Putin’s Russia.
Saturday 24/08/2019
A rebel fighter stands near the remains of a downed regime warplane near the jihadist-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib, August 14. (AFP)
War of attrition. A rebel fighter stands near the remains of a downed regime warplane near the jihadist-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in southern Idlib, August 14. (AFP)

LONDON - Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, supported by Russia and, in a more deniable form, Iran, began an offensive against the last insurgent-held enclave in Syria, Idlib, in late April. Until a month ago, this looked like an embarrassing fiasco: with a minimal increase in Turkish support to its rebel proxies, pro-Assad forces gained about 1% of the southern part of “Greater Idlib.”

In the last fortnight, however, the pro-Assad coalition has made important breakthroughs that could prove decisive.

The Assad regime declared a ceasefire in Idlib on August 1 but it was quickly clear this was meaningless and the regime openly repudiated the ceasefire within four days. Savage aerial attacks recommenced on rebel bastions including Kafr Zayta, Latamina and Khan Sheikhoun, the latter a key focus of the offensive from pro-Assad forces that tried to besiege northern Hama.

At the other end of the Idlib pocket, near Kabani, administratively part of Latakia governorate, the pro-Assad coalition attacked, clearly to stretch insurgent capacity.

Though thousands of people were displaced by indiscriminate Assad regime and Russian air strikes, insurgent coordination — between the Turkish-supported mainstream rebels and the jihadists of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) — remained relatively solid.

Other Turkish proxies from Efrin entered Idlib to fortify insurgent lines, a proposal that HTS had previously vetoed. The pro-Assad forces are struggling to make headway on the Kabani front but the Hama front has begun to break their way.

There was never doubt that Assad and Iran regard the recapture of Idlib — and every other inch of Syrian territory — as an existential security issue and would only allow the area to remain outside of its control for as long as it was forcibly prevented from doing otherwise.

Likewise, there was no doubt that, when the moment came for the Assad/Iran system to make its move on Idlib, it would be assisted by Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Whatever daylight there is between Moscow and Tehran over Syria, it will never amount to an exploitable schism. That the Russia-Iran strategic relationship has been misread by the United States, Israel and — most important in this case — Turkey remains one of the enduring mysteries of the Syrian war.

Turkey arranged an Idlib ceasefire with Russia in September 2018 that was welcomed internationally as a reprieve. It was a poisoned offering. On its own terms, the accord put the initiative in the hands of the pro-Assad forces. By laying the emphasis on the terrorism issue related to HTS and conditioning the truce on Ankara dismantling HTS, which the Turks could not do and which would only have smoothed the way for the pro-Assad offensive had it succeeded, it left the Russians with a standing pretext. This dynamic has now played out.

When Putin met with French President Emmanuel Macron on August 19, the Russian president was able to, in effect, say he was respecting Macron’s call for implementing the Sochi agreement by not preventing the Assad offensive that was going to “end these terrorist threats.”

Sochi “never said that in Idlib terrorists would feel comfortable,” Putin added.

It is little wonder Putin felt free to humiliate Macron in his own country given his generally cringing tone and approach. After all, Putin brazenly interfered in France’s democracy to try to prevent Macron being elected and here Macron was offering a “multilateral… architecture” between the European Union and Russia based on “trust.”

The final hurdle was Turkey. In May 2018, Ankara completed its 12th and final observation post in Idlib. Those positions were understood to be political tripwires that were essentially militarily indefensible. The thinking went that Moscow would prevent the pro-Assad coalition attacking Turkish positions because it wanted to keep its entente with Turkey so it could continue to sow divisions in NATO and Turkey could escalate if challenged.

The first assumption was deeply flawed and it was up to Turkey to demonstrate the second when it was tested. This did not happen.

By August 22, the pro-Assad coalition had captured Khan Sheikhoun, severing the northern Hama portion of “Greater Idlib” and besieging a pocket that included a Turkish observation post at Morek. Any deterrent effect the Turkish observation posts had evaporated if Ankara’s reaction to this aggression is anything but escalatory force — and there is no indication Turkey is thinking in such terms. To the contrary, it seems likely that Turkey will opt for an evacuation, possibly arranged through the Russians.

Any Turkish deal with Moscow to recover its own people would mean even further concessions to be paid by Ankara’s rebel allies and this would compound a situation in which there is every indication that rebel morale is breaking.

Accusations of treachery are beginning to be exchanged between insurgents, a tell-tale sign of an impending loss when factions try to pre-emptively assign blame.

The sheer scale of the casualties inflicted by the pro-Assad coalition’s increased use of indiscriminate air power has done much to bring this about but recent events are only part of the story. The attrition and demoralisation as the revolution realised its defeat and its remnants came under foreign influence are trends that hollowed out Idlib’s defences long ago.