The Aleppo agreement does not so much mark a turning point in the political course of the Syrian crisis as it marks a tactical turning point in terms of the geo-strategic calculations of the Syrian regime and its allies with respect to their avenues of action in order to eliminate pockets of opposition in the post-Aleppo battles. These plans may temporarily run up against the political process agreed upon with several opposition factions. All will hopefully unfold in Astana, Kazakhstan. Coordinated statements issued by the regime in Damascus and Moscow indicate that Idlib will be the next stop for military action ostensibly targeting Fatah Al-Sham militias, formerly known as the Nusra Front. If Idlib turns into “another Aleppo” the regime will have forfeited its pretext for achieving its ends of bolstering its military and political positions without abiding by the articles of the truce agreement.
To Damascus and its allies, the Aleppo accord has spared them considerable military energies they would otherwise have had to invest in the forthcoming battles. At the same time, it won them numerous political gains. Above all, it undermined any scenario for an alternative to the existing regime. Secondly, it strengthened the differentiation between the militant political opposition and the extremist Islamist opposition epitomised by the Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda. Thirdly, it enabled the regime to secure threat of the surrounding regions where it has popular bases, strategic locations and concentrations of allied forces (from Russia, Iran and Hizbullah). Finally, it enabled it to seal the border with Turkey, which had long served as a major supply route of fighters and weapons for the opposition.
Since the Russian military intervention, the regime has been tactically working to drive opposition forces, of all stripes, towards Idlib. It has simultaneously been pushing to strip it of its popular support bases in the surrounding areas, especially in Homs, Hama and most recently Aleppo. This has helped the regime achieve several other objectives as it campaigned to secure control over about half of the territory of the country, in the west towards the borders with Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast. Perhaps the regime is also planning to take tactical advantage of Turkey’s currently neutralised position in favour of the militant opposition because of its need for Turkey to take on the Kurdish forces in Manbij and Tel-Abyad and prevent them from connecting the Kurdish-controlled cantons of Afrin, Kobani and Qamishli, which Turkey is determined to do in order to forestall the spectre of an autonomous Kurdish entity along its southern border.
At first glance, it looks like that tactics that the regime and its allies will take in the battle of Idlib will turn it into another Aleppo in terms of massive destruction and catastrophic humanitarian repercussions. However, in terms of management of the battle and combat tactics, Idlib will be far more violent than Aleppo, largely because of the greater defence and logistic challenges given the nature of the terrain and the nature of the forces in Idlib which would necessitate a far greater force than that are currently available on the ground. Currently, some 20 to 25 thousand regime forces are engaged in the protection of the Aleppo defence lines. At the same time, estimates place opposition forces entrenched at the Idlib front at more than 70,000 of which approximately 50,000 belong to Al-Qaeda. Therefore, the regime will seek reinforcements from its allies, especially Iran and Hizbullah, in order to muster the greatest possible number of ground forces for an attack. Already information leaked from Iran suggests that Tehran may increase its forces currently in Syria to around 70,000 troops.
It is also expected that the regime will not take great pains to differentiate between different types of opposition groups, such as Al-Nusra or others, or even between these in civilian opposition bases. At the same time, Idlib has been a major recipient of displaced people in Syria. According to United Nations figures, around 700,000 people have sought refuge there from the fighting in such places as Daria, Homs and the countryside around Damascus. This will necessitate different tactics than those used to retake Aleppo, which involved gradual neighbourhood by neighbourhood purge operations, the tactic that is being employed in the battle of Mosul with air cover provided by coalition forces.
In the battle of Idlib, where the nature of the forces and the demographics dictate different equations, the regime and its allies are likely to start with intensive and repeated aerial and surface strikes using barrel bombs to wreak massive material damage and impede the movements of the enemy forces. At the next stage, they will launch the ground offensive which will require greater numbers of troops, largely supplied by the regime’s regional allies (Iran and Hizbullah). It will also require at least double the amounts of Russian aerial sorties, which would be exceedingly difficult. According to Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu, in his final report on the operations in Syria in 2016, Russian planes performed 18,800 sorties killing around 35,000 “rebels” over the course of that year. In Idlib, there are at least one and a half times as many Al-Qaeda affiliated fighters, alone. Therefore, if the regime and its allies are unable to manage the ground battle effectively, it could drag on for a very long time. Idlib may be strategically important for the regime and its allies, but the battle for it will pose many more challenges than those that arose in the battle of Aleppo.
Battlefield challenges: Idlib poses a broader surrounding rural expanse which, as has been demonstrated in previous battles, is difficult for regime forces to control. The regime and its allies will have to move in more land forces than was the case in the area around Aleppo, and the operations will take longer, all the more so given the need for the regime to safeguard defence and back lines in case the ceasefire fails to hold or in the event of ongoing breaches by some parties. Another field-related problem is the long strip of territory extending along the borders between Aleppo and Idlib which could become a platform for military actions aimed at wreaking attrition on the forces of the regime and its allies.
REGIONAL CHALLENGES: Turkey, for example, continues to pose one. Even though it is one of the guarantors of the truce agreement together with Russia, Ankara might be forced to take action in the event that the regime forces strike targets in Idlib belonging to the opposition forces that signed the agreement. Ankara, in this case, could revert to using the card of its cross border support for the opposition factions. This, in turn, might force the regime to coordinate with Turkey, sign other agreements with Ankara and the opposition and possibly compromise on its goal to recapture the whole of Idlib.
The nature of the combatant forces: A repeat of the Aleppo victory may be difficult to achieve due to the nature of the enemy forces. Al-Qaeda sees Idlib as its main bastion. Its combat tactics will be different and the likelihood that the forces in Idlib would negotiate with the regime or a third party would be considerably less.
REGIME BEHAVIOUR: If, in the post Aleppo phase, the regime reverts to sustained bombardment of opposition targets, it will jeopardise the truce by making it difficult for the national opposition parties to adhere to it, driving them to realign with the Islamist opposition. According to the Kremlin newspaper, there are signs of the likelihood of such coordination between groups from the Free Syrian Army and the “Lions of the East” militia.
In an exclusive interview with Al-Ahram Weekly, Syrian opposition member Bassam Al-Malik said that the regime has hinted that it would target Idlib now that it had propelled opposition forces in that direction. On the question of the possibility of the regime using Iranian-affiliated militias for that purpose he said, “we oppose any presence whatsoever of Iranian, Iraqi and all other militias on Syrian territory. This is a basic demand.” He pointed out that the Russians agree with this demand which puts the regime in an awkward position with respect to Iran and Hizbullah, “its regional allies which have been entrenching themselves inside Syria and which now have a greater say in events than the regime.” He added that the differences between the allies have remained beneath the surface, but that they have mounted since Aleppo which will naturally be reflected in any actions the regime intends to take with respect to Idlib.
On recent developments in Wadi Bardi, Al-Malik said “the regime is fabricating a crisis. The water sources were interrupted due to the damage in the infrastructure. However, the regime is using the water scarcity as a pretext to attack Wadi Bardi. The people of Wadi Bardi want no more than a lifting of the siege and for medical relief to be sent in.”
In the final analysis, although it might be possible to enact another Aleppo battle in Idlib, the challenges are far greater. At the same time, so are the possible risks to the regime because it will not be able to preserve the gains it has won if it jeopardises the agreement struck in Aleppo. This should compel Al-Assad to explore alternative plans, beginning with stepping up his policy of driving wedges between the opposition forces and, also, offering concessions regarding his relations with Hizbullah and Iran.
One last factor is that the battle for Idlib would cause a huge number of civilian casualties, which would immediately trigger the UN Security Council into action.