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Assad’s Offense in Idlib and Russia’s Combination of Diplomatic and Military Outreach

President Bashar al-Assad is in the middle of preparing to take Idlib province from the rebels after the Syrian military successfully recaptured several rebel-held parts in both the south and west of Syria in the last couple of months. Idlib is the last remaining opposition stronghold in Syria. As a result of an agreement between Russia and Turkey in 2016, a number of opposition groups were transferred from Aleppo to Idlib. Al-Qaeda linked militia groups have dominated Idlib since then.

While this military offense is being planned, Russia, Assad’s main ally, is reaching out to other important countries in the region as well as the United States to manage the situation and de-conflict the operation. Russia is also boosting its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean to back Assad’s forces to recapture Idlib and to prevent a possible strike from the United States. Moscow has been busy for the last couple of weeks hosting top diplomats from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Syria and others to discuss Syria. Russian President Vladimir Putin also met with Turkish foreign and defense ministers along with the intelligence chief to discuss Syria’s planned operation in Idlib.

The main obstacle that Russia’s diplomacy has faced so far is Turkey’s objection to Syria’s military offense in Idlib. Idlib is one of the four de-escalation zones that were agreed to late last year by Turkey, Russia and Iran under the auspices of the Astana peace process which designated the Turkish military to monitor the cease-fire between Syrian forces and the opposition groups. Turkey has already set up 12 observatory posts in the province to monitor the ceasefire. From Turkey’s perspective, Ankara is against a military operation in Idlib for the following reasons.

First, Ankara is concerned that a military operation in Idlib would not be wise, because it could create a humanitarian tragedy. Idlib is near the Turkish border with Syria, which already hosts millions of refugees from Syria and more than 3 million people currently live in the Idlib province. The UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe” if a full-scale military operation takes place in the Idlib province and called for Iran, Turkey and Russia to find a peaceful solution for the “last remaining de-escalation zone.”

Second, Turkey is concerned that there is a lack of separation between opposition groups and civilians and this may result in a catastrophe. Turkey Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu made the case during a meeting with his Russian counterpart Lavrov: “It is important to neutralize the radical groups, but we have to distinguish the civilians from the terrorists.” This is why Turkey’s intelligence chief Hakan Fidan was in Moscow meeting with his Russian counterparts. Turkish foreign and defense ministers met with President Putin to propose a joint program to gather more intelligence on the ground, before engaging in a military operation and delaying Assad’s military offense. Turkey also asked the US to share more intelligence with Turkey on Idlib.

Recapturing Idlib is a priority for Assad as well as Russia and Iran because it is the last de-escalation zone that is currently in the hands of the opposition. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made the case this week that “terrorists in Idlib must be eliminated.” He further added that there is a “political understanding” between Russia and Turkey on Idlib. For the Syrian government, symbolically defeating Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, one of the main opposition groups, and conquering Idlib would show that the war in Syria is coming to an end. With Russia’s help, Assad has won on the battlefield and is able to ensure the territorial integrity of Syria as a whole. Beyond its symbolic and strategic significance, Idlib has other economic and security significance for both Syria and Russia. If Assad recaptures Idlib it will help boost the security of Russia’s Hmeimim airbase, which in the past faced several attacks from opposition groups based in Idlib.

Russia and Turkey were in recent weeks in a comprehensive dialogue to reach a deal that allows Syria’s military to eliminate the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham and others that are present in Idlib. Both countries need each other due to their strategic interests in Syria as a whole and especially in Idlib, as well as their leverage against the armed groups. President Erdogan signed a new decree that designates Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham as a terrorist group. New talks are expected in Iran later this week when Presidents Erdogan and Putin meet in Iran along with their Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani.

A brief readout that the Kremlin published this week about the upcoming meeting between the three leaders as the guarantors of the Astana peace process described the agenda of the talks as a joint effort that continues to “discuss a package of additional measures aimed at totally eradicating the hotbed of international terrorism and facilitating a political settlement and resolving humanitarian issues.” Because Idlib is a thorn in the rocky relationship between Iran, Russia and Turkey in Syria, Idlib will top the agenda of the Tehran talks. An offensive attack in Idlib is not expected to happen before the talks in Tehran, and if it happens, it will likely be smaller than expected as Chris Phillips argued in his latest column in the Middle East Eye.

The US role in Idlib and its current strategy in Syria is unclear since President Trump expressed his desire for the US to leave Syria. The US, which has a military presence in the north of the country, shifted its approach in Syria from disengaging to playing a more active role in an attempt to eliminate jihadist groups in Syria and contain Iran’s growing influence in Syria and across the Mediterranean. Iran is expanding its military presence in Syria by signing a new military cooperation agreement with Syria which provides a continued “presence and participation” of Iranian forces in Syria. To confront Iran’s role in Syria and across the Middle East, the White House is trying to work with Russia to achieve this goal, which sees this target as ‘unrealistic.’ They are far from being successful due to the lack of a Russian commitment to achieve this aim as well as the lack of a Russian influence in Iran that can change Tehran’s strategic calculation. Although Moscow’s interests do not converge with the Iranian ones all the time, Russia is not willing to use Tehran as a bargaining chip against the US as it did before.

The US State Department revised its Syria file by appointing new diplomats to lead Washington’s policy towards Syria, which demonstrates that the US is considering playing a more active role in Syria diplomatically in the future peace talks. The new US top diplomat for Syria’s engagement, Jim Jeffrey, is on a tour to Israel, Jordan and Turkey this week to provide a fresh perspective of Trump’s approach to Syria before the Tehran talks between Turkey, Russia and Iran later this week. In Idlib, President Trump is not in favor of a military offensive that could cause a “potential human tragedy.” But the White House is closely monitoring if Syrian forces use chemical weapons in Idlib. Two weeks ago, White House National Security Advisor John Bolton warned that the US would respond strongly if the Syrian government uses chemical weapons. Both in April 2017 and 2018, the US launched airstrikes against Syrian targets after reports of a use of chemical weapons by the Syrian forces in Khan Shaykhun and Douma.

Russia prefers the opposition militia in Idlib to surrender peacefully to re-enter to Syria, but Moscow is also willing to use force to eliminate the radical jihadist groups in the province. Moscow is also not prepared to upset its other tactical partner in Syria, Turkey, and that is the reason diplomats from both countries are in a constant dialogue to construct a deal that addresses both Ankara and Moscow’s concerns. Beyond securing its military bases in Syria and other long-term strategic interests in the Mediterranean Sea, Moscow’s endgame in Syria is to find a stable government in Damascus and defeat all radical groups that threaten the stability of the Assad regime, especially those foreign fighters that travelled from Russia and other countries to take part in the war in Syria.