Idlib: Will Syria's last major battle be its deadliest?
However, the last major redoubt held by his regime's opponents in the northwest province of Idlib, may become the site for the fiercest fighting and devastation in the Syrian conflict to date.
Heavy airstrikes on the province, carried out by both Russian and Syrian airpower, "gave way to a precarious calm" last weekend amid hopes that diplomatic talks could avert a war, reported Voice of America.
Presently Syrian opposition groups in Idlib are attempting to unify into a "National Army," with Turkey's help, to try and overcome intra-rebel rivalries, which will make it more difficult for Damascus to reconquer the province.
The regime has been launching airstrikes and shelling Idlib-based groups in what could soon mark the beginning of a large-scale offensive.
Ankara has called for an end to these attacks, urging a diplomatic solution to avert a major escalation.
Two weeks ago the Russian Special Envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, said a major offensive in Idlib is "not and may not be on the agenda."
|Syrian opposition groups in Idlib are attempting to unify into a 'National Army,' with Turkey's help, to try and overcome intra-rebel rivalries
However, on Tuesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that amid attacks on the Syrian Army from the province that the regime "has the right to defend itself against those attacks, and we have to support their operations."
Consequently, such an operation could amount to the most destructive Syrian campaign to date, or at least as destructive as the final stages of the infamously brutal battle for the city of Aleppo in late 2016.
The predominant force in Idlib is the Haya't Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group, the latest incarnation of the infamous al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra.
"The view of the Syrian war as winding down is true at one level: the Assad regime, absent a direct, large-scale, outside intervention, has prevailed and will rule over at least the western spine of the country for the foreseeable future," Kyle Orton, an independent Middle East analyst, told The New Arab.
There is a caveat however, that being that approximately half of Syria is still outside of Assad and his backer's control.
|A full-scale offensive into Idlib could uproot between 700,000 and 2.5 million Syrians currently in the province, many of whom will likely flee over the border into Turkey
"Assad is totally reliant on external powers to survive," Orton went on to note.
"There is no state but rather a patchwork of militias, most of them under Iran's control. The economy is shattered and unless Europe retrospectively subsidises the genocide it will remain so. There are also rebel and jihadist groups operating, even in areas near the regime's heartland, who can disrupt any sense of 'normality' that might be settling in.
"So, in that sense, though perhaps at a lower level, at least in the short-term, the conflict continues and is likely to for as long as Assad is in place."
Orton explains that the "main fact" about the Idlib situation is "its sheer unpredictability".
It's a "jungle" he said, using a term some opposition groups have used to describe it in light of "a mess of competing agendas not only between Turkey and the pro-Assad coalition, but within the pro-Assad coalition."
If Assad and his Iranian backer do opt to conquer Idlib, "as events at present with the dropping of leaflets calling for surrender suggest," Russia will provide decisive military support "despite not wanting to rupture relations with Turkey."
Orton argues that Moscow is not capable of controlling events on the ground "even if it wanted to", summing-up Assad and Iran's aims as "maximalist."
Turkey, which has established 12 military 'observational posts' in northern Idlib – one of the Astana Process's so-called de-escalation zones established between Turkey, Iran and Russia – is opposed to a major escalation in Idlib, calling it a "red-line", since it fears becoming swamped by more terrorised refugees.
Orton argues that it's "unclear" if Assad can reconquer Idlib if the Turkish military, possibly backing some opposition groups, opts to resist any regime offensive since "the structural limitations of the regime are not improving."
One alternative he suggests is a negotiated settlement which permits the regime to takeover Idlib unopposed by Ankara in return for guarantees to keep Turkey's Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) adversary out of the province.
|If Assad and his Iranian backer do opt to conquer Idlib, 'as events at present with the dropping of leaflets calling for surrender suggest,' Russia will provide decisive military support
The YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) group has recently denied reports that it is contemplating supporting a regime offensive in Idlib, as part of a bid to get Damascus's support in recapturing the neighbouring Kurdish Afrin region, which Turkey invaded earlier this year.
However, Orton believes it's difficult to see how such a settlement could work considering the large number of "rejectionist elements" in Idlib which Ankara has no control over and the slim likelihood that "Turkey would surrender a zone between its other Syrian holdings, where it has numerous assets that can be used for its own security needs."
These other "holdings" consist of the aforementioned Afrin Canton and the approximately 60-mile wide part of nearby Syrian border territory – that includes the small cities of Jarablus, Azaz and Al-Bab – Turkey captured from Islamic State in Operation Euphrates Shield, which concluded in March 2017.
Regarding Russia's role in a major Idlib offensive Timur Akhmetov, a researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council think-tank, noted that Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has recently confirmed that Russia and Turkey will coordinate in Idlib.
"Russia will coordinate flows of refugees from an operation room," Akhmetov told The New Arab. "Russia will mostly support Damascus with its air force but there is an issue of anti-aircraft missiles in the hands of the HTS and the like."
An anti-aircraft weapon believed to have been in HTS's possession managed to shoot-down a Russian Air Force Su-25 ground-attack plane early last February. The pilot was murdered after he managed to eject over HTS territory. This could potentially mean that Russia will resort to higher altitude bombing missions to avoid losing any more of its warplanes, which would likely result in more casualties among the three million terrorised Syrian civilians presently in the province.
"I think the major events will be in Idlib's south, which has witnessed constant shelling recently," Akhmetov added, going on to predict that Idlib's provincial capital city will be spared from a major battle since "Turkey is not ready to host millions more refugees."
If this ultimately becomes the case HTS will likely be able to hold onto some of the province since air raids alone are unlikely to completely uproot them. If this happens Akhmetov anticipates that Turkey will invest more in opposition forces in Idlib "and create a force to fight HTS in the north, while Russia and Damascus proceed with military operations in the south."
When calling for an alternative to a destructive regime offensive in Idlib Cavusoglu argued that it's crucial "to differentiate between moderate rebels and radicals."
"The local people and the moderate rebels are very disturbed by these terrorists, so we need to fight against them all together," he said, arguing that it "would be a massacre to bomb Idlib, civilians, hospitals, schools just because there are terrorists."
Turkey's basic goal, Akhmetov concluded, is "to further demarcate moderate opposition from the terrorists."
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.
Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon