Commentary in Annahar newspaper on the upcoming Idlib operation, Syria

Annahar Premium – Aug. 25, 2018

Mr. George Issa, distinguished journalist in the Lebanese newspaper “Annahar”, posed to me three questions on the upcoming Idlib operation, as follows:

Question nr. 1: What is the expected scale of the next Syrian military operation in Idlib?

The operation in Idlib is anticipated but still there is no final decision for its launch. Despite the massive reinforcements drawn by the Assad regime and their allies from Iran, Lebanon and Russia, this does not give the full picture of the type of operation. There are two factors that we must study in detail about this operation: internal and external.
The internal factor is that the battle of Idlib will be the first battle were the Islamists of the Syrian military opposition will be tested. In Ghouta, Daraa and Qalamoun and the northern Homs countryside, the proportion of Islamists among the rebels was very small, while in Idlib they will be on the frontline of combat. More than 20.000 fighters belonging to factions with strong religious ideology complicates the military and logistical scene of the battle. Through my direct contact with local sources in Idlib province, I was informed that the state of alert in in the last fortress of the Syrian opposition suggests that the battle, if initiated by Assad and his allies, will not be like any previous battle.
The external factor of this battle is abbreviated in principle in the Turkish stance. Despite the visit of Lavrov to Ankara mid-month and the creation of the impression that an agreement has been reached between the two sides suggesting the selling of Idlib rebels by Turkey, on the ground there is no indication of such a move. Turkish check points only hours after the end of the press conference between the Turkish Foreign Minister and his Russian counterpart rushed to calm the residents of the areas, stressing that there is no military action coming in the foreseeable future, although this does not reflect the real situation.

Question nr. 2: What about Turkey’s tempered voice concerning the offensive?

Idlib is seen by Turkey from two perspectives:
Firstly, economically. Idlib province in addition to the Euphrates Shield and Afrin areas have become an important market for Turkish goods especially under the current economic situation which increases this need for Turkey. Furthermore, any massive military action will spark a wave of asylum seekers for the more than 3 million people living in this geographical area that Turkey will not be able to hold.
Secondly,  politically. Turkey is aware that Idlib’s paper and its surroundings are the last of its negotiating cards in Syria, and therefore it will try to preserve it or benefit from it as much as possible. In this context, the best choice for Turkey, is the one presented to the Russian and Iranian sides in the last Astana meeting by the Turkish representative. A diplomatic source has confirmed to me that this proposal is based on reducing the danger of the extreme militias in the Syrian north by pushing them to merge into the so-called National Liberation Front, which recently integrated all the factions close to Turkey in the province of Idlib. In exchange, Turkey will get a guarantee from Russia for the formation of a federal government in the region for a five-year period and the responsibility to rebuild it. At the end of the five-year period, Russia will announce presidential and parliamentary elections in Syria and the area will return to Damascus rule. This proposal was rejected by Iran and left to study by Moscow.

Question nr. 3: Did their crisis with the US push them to accept Russia’s final say in this issue?

It is certain that the recent tension in Turkish-American relations has affected Ankara’s perspective on many issues including the closer approach to Moscow. However, the cooperation of Moscow and Ankara in any project inside Syria was on the principle of interest of the parties as it happened in Aleppo in exchange for the Euphrates Shield operation, and the countryside of Hama and Qalamoun in the northern countryside of Homs in exchange of Afrin. But at the moment Moscow has nothing to offer to Ankara in return. Therefore, in my personal opinion, Assad and his allies will start by taking a military action in eastern Latakia countryside and northern Hama countryside. The results of the first weeks on the ground will determine the course of this battle, either to progress more or accept a compromise with Ankara.

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