BEIRUT, LEBANON (11:45 P.M.) – The Syrian Arab Army launched an offensive in the northwestern countryside of the Idlib Governorate this past Monday, targeting several areas controlled by jihadists and rebel groups loyal to Turkey.
Since the start of the offensive, the Syrian Arab Army has achieved their first objective, which is the capture of the two militant strongholds, Qal’at Al-Madiq and Kafr Naboudeh.
However, since this offensive began, rumors have surfaced of some large-scale offensive to capture the entire Idlib Governorate from groups like the National Liberation Front (NLF) and Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham. These claims are false and mostly amplified by pro and anti-government social media accounts, news outlets, and western officials.
Firstly, the Syrian Arab Army cannot wage an offensive like this without an agreement between the Russian and Turkish forces in northwestern Syria. Russia approved this latest offensive after the militant groups inside of the southwestern part of the demilitarized zone refused to withdraw from the area and halt their attacks on towns like Mhardeh and Suqaylabiyeh.
While Turkey resisted the previous Russian pleas to force these groups out of the demilitarized zone, they were left with no choice after the jihadists of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham repeatedly attacked the Hmeimim Airbase in southwest Latakia in April and May.
Secondly, Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham and foreign jihadist groups like the Turkestan Islamic Party are primarily concentrated along the Latakia-Idlib-Hama axes. Russia has made it clear that they will not tolerate their presence inside of Syria. The Syrian Army’s new offensive seeks to expel them from the Latakia Governorate and the nearby Al-Ghaab Plain.
HTS does control Idlib city, but it is far enough away from the front-lines and not a major concern for the Russian military at this time. In the future, the Russian military is hoping to reopen the Latakia-Aleppo Highway, but only with Turkey’s participation.
Thirdly, the Syrian Arab Army will need far more soldiers to launch a major operation to capture the Idlib Governorate. Furthermore, the population in the governorate is anti-government and less likely to accept reconciliation deals similar to those seen in southern Syria.
The Syrian Army can land grab around the demilitarized zone, but pushing into towns and cities that oppose the government will be very difficult. The other issue is the terrain of Idlib, which is very rugged, especially in the northwestern part of the governorate. These areas are very difficult to capture and will need heavy air support.
Fourthly, an operation like this would result in the exodus of many people from Idlib to Turkey or neighboring regions like Afrin. Turkey is not willing to bear the burden of such an operation that would likely displace many people to their border.
While this goes against the government’s “every inch of Syria” approach, they also do not want a military confrontation with Turkey. Turkey’s observation posts have deterred the Syrian Army’s movements in the past and they will likely beef up their presence in these areas if they believed the government forces were going to make a move to seize the entire governorate.
Lastly, since the Trump administration intensified their sanctions on Syria and Iran, Damascus has been forced to seek out solutions to the ongoing oil crisis inside the country. One of the solutions, a source in Damascus told Al-Masdar News, was to allow Iranian oil deliveries to Syria through Turkey. Nothing is official in this regard, but this is one of the primary solutions the government has been mulling since late April.
In addition to this, the government is seeking to reopen the Aleppo-Gaziantep Highway. Resuming trade with Turkey is a high priority for the government, especially for the people of Aleppo, who have traditionally relied on importing and exporting to Turkey. Prior to the war, Aleppo was considered Syria’s economic capital; it has since been ravaged by war and requires the resumption of trade with Turkey to improve the conditions around the city.