Assad trains crosshairs on Syria's Idlib province
The Syrian regime is conducting a major military offensive against the northwest province of Idlib - which is primarily under the control of the al-Qaeda offshoot Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), formerly known as the Nusra Front.
The offensive comes as the regime wraps up its Russian-backed offensive against the Islamic State group in the eastern Deir az-Zour province, launched last September, and may well become the largest such operation since the brutal battle for Aleppo in late 2016.
Already the offensive has routed militants from several villages and towns, displacing thousands of civilians in the middle of freezing winter temperatures in the process, with the regime reportedly recapturing approximately 60 villages in the past two weeks.
As with most of its military operations in recent years this offensive is being backed by both Russian airstrikes and Iranian-supported militia forces.
|The situation in Idlib is desperate|
Idlib has been outside of Assad's control since early 2014. The city of Idlib is the only provincial capital, aside from Raqqa, over which Damascus has lost complete control since the war broke out in early 2011. Even in Aleppo, in which the regime fought various rebel and Islamist groups between the summer of 2012 and the end of 2016, President Bashar al-Assad never, even briefly, lost complete control over the vast urban centre to any of his many rival forces.
Recapturing the strategically important Idlib province in the near future will further solidify the Syrian dictator's grip over most of the country and entrench "reality on the ground" before any negotiated settlement is reached to end the conflict.
Read more: Rebel resistance melts away as Syrian troops advance on Idlib
"The situation in Idlib is desperate," Kyle Orton, a Middle East researcher at the Henry Jackson Society, told The New Arab.
"Turkey managed to forestall an operation by the pro-Assad coalition in October by agreeing with Russia to move troops into northern Idlib. Turkey remains focused on Syrian Kurdish forces but has been working to undermine HTS by running information operations against it by leaking intercepted conversations, showing the group's cynicism and brutality, and assassinating its most vicious leaders."
The Turkish military gained its foothold in the north of Idlib province back in October. Their primary aim there was to encircle and besiege the Kurdish Afrin Canton, an isolated enclave controlled by the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) - deemd by Ankara to be an enemy.
|Afrin, Kobane and Jazira are all regions held by Syrian Kurds. Turkey has moved to encircle Afrin canton by entering northern Idlib, as Assad's Russian-backed troops advance from the south|
Unlike the Turkish Euphrates Shield operation against IS in northwest Syria - which began in late August 2016 and ended late last March - Turkey has not sought to overtly oust HTS from all of Idlib through military force to achieve their goal of fighting the YPG. Instead, Ankara reportedly reached an agreement with HTS to attain strategic positions along Idlib's frontiers with Afrin before undertaking the more subtle covert action against the Islamists to which Orton alluded.
For now, HTS sits between the Turkish army in the north of Idlib and the Syrian regime forces to the south. Last year, during the final major battle of Euphrates Shield, the Battle of al-Bab, Syrian regime forces approached that city from the south while the Turkish military and its proxies laid siege to the then IS-occupied city from the north.
At the time there were some fears that the two separate uncoordinated campaigns might have resulted in a clash.
"The Russians have stated that their main mission, after IS' caliphate is gone, is the destruction of HTS, a position in line with the Assad regime and Iran, who were never going to allow this province to remain out of their control," Orton went on to explain. "The offensive that has been launched into Idlib by these pro-regime forces means that Turkey's aforementioned long-term anti-HTS operations are no longer enough to hold off this pro-Assad coalition."
|[The] international community hardly raised a murmur [about Aleppo], so they will not protest about Idlib - where the regime's claim that its opponents are terrorists has more connection to reality|
Orton adds that while HTS is the predominant military force in Idlib, "pockets of mainstream rebels remain and there is a civil society movement fighting to keep alive some version of the revolution that is being firewalled from the jihadists".
"But this will not matter," he predicted. "A year ago, the pro-Assad coalition mobilised the same War on Terror language to crush Aleppo, a city dominated by mainstream oppositionists, and the international community hardly raised a murmur, so they will not protest about Idlib - where the regime's claim that its opponents are terrorists has more connection to reality."
In the meantime, Orton concluded: "Without a deeper Turkish intervention to neutralise HTS and set up an alternative governing structure, the pro-Assad coalition will continue taking territory in Idlib in its usual way, with death squads and carpet bombing, and Turkey will soon face the consequences of that in the form of floods of refugees."
At present there are more than 2.6 million Syrians in Idlib - 1.1 million of whom, the United Nations estimates, have sought refuge there from other parts of the war-torn country. In the past two weeks alone, 80,000 Syrians in Idlib have reportedly been displaced by this latest offensive.
The only thing that is certain about the outcome of this latest campaign is that the Syrian people will, once again, be the ones who have to bear the brunt of the impending death and devastation.
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.