Idlib operation risks morphing into ‘war of attrition’

The armed opposition was fighting on two fronts at once, which made the battle far more difficult.
Sunday 30/06/2019
A boy holds the Free Syrian Army flag during a protest calling for an end to the strikes and for Ankara to open the frontier at the Atmeh crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border, in Idlib governorate, Syria, May 31. (Reuters)
Long stand-off. A boy holds the Free Syrian Army flag during a protest calling for an end to the strikes and for Ankara to open the frontier at the Atmeh crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border, in Idlib governorate, Syria, May 31. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - When begun after a failed peace conference last April, the operation in Idlib was supposed to be both “quick” and “limited,” aimed more at squeezing the armed opposition out of the city’s countryside than retaking its last stronghold in the Syrian north-west.

The Russians packaged it as a “must” to the international community, saying that these Islamic groups were threatening their security at the airbase of Hmeimeem and putting the lives of Christians of Mhardeh, a city north-west of Hama, in grave danger. The operation aimed at pushing them out of the farmlands in places such as al-Ghab in the Hama countryside and Jisr al-Shughour, which overlooks the Syrian coast, and other cities.

Ultimately Syrian troops were supposed to reach the strategic opposition-held city of Ariha, south of Idlib, within 2-3 weeks.

During its initial stages, the operation went well, thanks to formidable Russian air cover. Syrian forces rumbled swiftly through the Hama-Idlib countryside, retaking 18 towns and villages.

The armed opposition was fighting on two fronts at once, which made the battle far more difficult. One was against advancing government troops from the Greek Orthodox town of Suqaylabiyah and the second was an ongoing war within Idlib itself, waged by the jihadi groups against each other.

One camp included the Turkey-backed National Liberation Front, a loose coalition of fighters who had been shipped to Idlib from previous battlefields, estimated at 70,000 troops. It included powerful players such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the Free Idlib Army, Ahrar al-Sham, Suqoor al-Sham and the Noor al-Din al-Zinki Brigade.

A second force was Jaysh al-Izza, a powerful affiliate of the FSA, and so was Hurras al-Din, composed mainly of defectors from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), all affiliated with al-Qaeda.

The fourth and last — and most effective of all in battle— was HTS itself, which overran 95% of the Idlib province last January.

Apart from lip service, nobody seemed to object to the rapid advances of the Syrian and Russian armies, not even the Turks or the Americans. Then, something happened on June 6, when a counter-offensive was launched by Turkish-backed opposition forces, repelling the advance and retaking a handful of the towns from the Syrian Army.

Back-to-back attacks by government troops against illegal Turkish checkpoints within Syrian territory only complicated the situation in January.

Since December 2018, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been eying the city of Tel Rifaat, 40km north of Aleppo, where he claims Kurdish separatists are hiding since their eviction from Afrin last year.

He was brought to believe that in return for his silence on Idlib, the Russians would not mind his advance on Tel Rifaat. That approval never came, however, thanks to a double veto by both Tehran and Damascus. In retaliation, Erdogan sent arms and fighters to Idlib, seemingly saying that if he couldn’t take Tel Rifaat, then he wouldn’t surrender Idlib that easily.

Earlier in September, Erdogan met with his Russian counterpart at the Black Sea resort of Sochi, where they agreed to let Turkey cleanse the Idlib province from all terrorists affiliated either with the Islamic State (ISIS) or HTS, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra.

Erdogan missed his initial deadline of mid-October 2018 and every extension since then, seemingly losing interest in the entire Idlib affair and getting more focused on Kurdish-held cities such as Kobane, Ras al-Ayn and Tel Rifaat, especially in light of US President Donald Trump’s decision to all but 400 troops from north-eastern Syria.

To prepare his proxies for an assault on the Kurds, Erdogan withdrew top fighters from Idlib, from the Zinki Brigade and Ahrar al-Sham, seeming that they were far more needed elsewhere.

“A ceasefire won’t happen in the de-conflict zone unless Turkey commits to cleansing the area,” said Amer Elias, a Damascus-based political analyst. “Nothing will happen before the Damascus-Aleppo Highway is opened by the Syrian Army.”

Turkish intervention was not the only reason why the Idlib operation took so long. Another main point was the total absence of Hezbollah fighters, who had been explicitly excluded from the battlefield, in light of rising tension between Iran and the United States.

That certainly contributed to the sluggish advance and so did the fact that some of the government-affiliated troops were former fighters with the armed opposition, who failed to shoot at their former comrades.

They were mostly ex-fighters from the Syrian south, who switched sides and joined the Russian-led reconciliation process in 2018. Others were simply taken aback by the geography, which they were total strangers to, never having ventured into the Hama and Idlib countryside before, at a time when their opponents had been deeply trenched there since 2015. A fourth reason, no doubt, is the jihadi doctrine of HTS and ISIS, which makes them last longer than all of their allies or adversaries in battle.

Due to the above surprises, Idlib has taken far longer than most people expected. And this wasn’t the full-fledged battle for Idlib but only aimed at retaking its countryside, making one wonder what the final battle will look like and how long it will last.

Unlike other battlefields, which were perceived as difficult but concluded swiftly in favour of the Russians, this will morph into a war of attrition aimed at gradual surrender through sustained attacks, unless a new deal is hammered out between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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