The knot in Idlib
The forces and methods used to solve the knot in Idlib will play an important role in shaping the future of Syria.
As the Raqqa operation reaches a certain phase, attention in Syria is turned to Idlib. Idlib is the last bastion of radical Islamic groups, other than IS, in the area.Following infighting between these groups, Al-Nusra – the Syrian arm of Al-Qaida – had taken control of this city; Al-Nusra dominance in the city rekindled discussions of an operation in Idlib.
On a likely operation on Idlib, we can say the following; the forces and methods used to solve the knot in Idlib will play an important role in shaping the future of Syria. Firstly, regardless of the forces used in this operation, following Halep, another important chapter in the Syrian war will end. Furthermore, the forces and methods used in this operation will determine the new balance of powers in Syria.
When a possible Idlib operation was first mentioned, it was said that Russia and SDF would carry it out. Russia had already moved soldiers into the neighbouring Kurdish canton of Afrin. However, Trump implemented a more interventionist strategy in the Middle East. He increased support to Kurds in Syria (SDF) and supplied them with heavy arms. This was followed by a policy of increasing tensions between the regime and the Kurds and establishing widespread US influence in Northern Syria. This brought to attention the possibility of SDF taking part in a joint operation on Idlib with the US. Worried about the collaboration between the US and SDF in Raqqa deepening with an operation in Idlib, Russia, Iran and Turkey intensified meetings and negotiations among themselves. The future of Idlib was an important point of discussions when the Iranian Chief of Staff Bagheri visited Turkey.
At present, two possibilities are discussed regarding an operation on Idlib. The first is a SDF operation with the support of the US. Kurds have established ‘Democratic Federation of Northern Syria along with their allies in Northern-Syria/Rojava; SDF is establishing itself in Idlib, following Raqqa, will lead to strengthening and a more prominent position for the Kurds in dealing with the regime and its supporters. This would obviously mean more bases for the US in Northern Syria and an increased power in negotiations with Russia.
The other possibility is the operation to be carried out by supporters of the Syrian regime (Russia and Iran). As can be expected, Erdoğan leadership will not be pleased about Assad regime taking Idlib; but faced with the possibility of Kurds undertaking this operation, Ankara has no choice but to turn to Russia and Iran. Of course, Turkey is expecting that this collaboration will provide it with an opportunity for offensive interventions in Afrin.
Russia does not want to lose the Kurds but Iran has similar concerns to Turkey in the face of ‘Democratic Federation of Northern Syria’. These concerns also unite Iran, and Turkey against the ‘Independence Referendum’ planned to take place in Iraqi Kurdistan on 25 September.
Russia’s certain level of collaboration with Turkey and affording Turkey a limited capability to intervene in Syria might seem to contradict its desire not to lose the Kurds. Russia’s plan is to keep the Turkish threat to Northern-Syria/Rojava alive so that it can push the Kurds into accepting a limited form of independence, the terms of which will be determined by Russia.
Consequently, Idlib will become a more important issue in ending the war and rebalancing powers in Syria. Regardless of who takes part in the operation, the biggest losers of this operation — along with radical Islamic groups — will be the Turkish regime that played a determining role, with Saudi Arabia,in helping radical groups initially take over the city.