In northwestern Syria, straddling the Turkish border, and southeast from Aleppo, lies the governorate of Idlib. Idlib city, the capital of the governorate, has a respectable population of around 130,000. Being one of Syria’s biggest and oldest agricultural centers, the city is surrounded by fertile valleys and is home to a rich regional history. Unfortunately, Idlib city and its surrounding governorate is also about to become the scene for what will likely be the final showdown of the Syrian Civil War.
Idlib began to make headlines over the past several months as more and more Syrian government victories began forcing rebel groups away from former strongholds and forcing them northwest. Militants began rallying in Idlib due to the relative degree of safety the region was able to offer. The northwestern province was one of the four “de-escalation zones” agreed by Ankara, Moscow and Tehran in May 2017, during the fourth round of the Astana talks. Such talk of de-escalation was a product of a time when a political solution to the Syrian conflict was still the major focus for regional players. But after years of Russian military assistance, government forces have made a solid comeback. Al-Assad knows he has the upper hand and is no longer looking to negotiate.
This explains the hardline stance the Syrian government has taken in recent regional negotiations. On September 7, a three-way summit in Tehran failed to produce a clear agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran on the fate of Idlib. A ceasefire suggested by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was completely rejected by al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin, a decision that pretty much made a fully-fledged government offensive imminent.
Put bluntly, Idlib is the last barrier standing between the Syrian government and total victory.
The outcome of fighting in the region will almost certainly be decisive for the entire national conflict. Russia and Syria are ready to go all the way to put an end to the rebellion that began seven years ago. Thus the battle for Idlib may very well be Syria’s deadliest battle yet.
Understandably, there are those concerned about this prospect.
On September 8, international media reported on a statement released by Turkey’s leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, warning that the upcoming battle could turn the densely-packed northwest of the country into a “lake of blood.” Erdoğan implied that Turkey may be forced to intervene in some way before the killing in Idlib got out of hand.
If the world turns a blind eye to the killing of tens of thousands of innocent people to further the regime’s interests, we will neither watch from the sidelines nor participate in such a game.
— Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (@RT_Erdogan) September 7, 2018
Turkey does have troops deployed in northern Syria, concentrated around the city of Afrin. In theory it could intervene if it wanted to. But the idea of Turkey further complicating its position in Syria by directly opposing both Russian and Syrian forces is pretty much unthinkable. Ankara still remembers the trouble it created for itself three years ago when it downed a Russian jet that invaded its airspace. No, the Russian-Syrian offensive will go ahead unhindered.
Preliminary attacks have already begun. Air assaults by the Russian air force have already inflicted casualties, in what have been described as the most intense series of strikes in weeks.
In the onslaught that is coming, the best scenario we can hope for is rebel factions coming to their senses sooner than later. With any luck, as the inevitable victory of Russia-Syria becomes clear, the final battle of the Syrian conflict can come to an end through surrender and not slaughter.