(Middle Eastern Review)
By Mahan Abedin
As the Syrian government prepares for a massive offensive to retake Idlib from an assortment of opposition groups, there are signs that the political and diplomatic shifts ensuing from this offensive may prove to be more important than its central military component.
Widely described as the “last bastion” of the armed component of the Syrian rebellion, Idlib is indeed the last significant piece of territory outside the Syrian government’s control. It’s recapture, whilst important in military terms, carries more symbolic significance in so far as it signals the definitive defeat of the rebellion which began more than seven years ago.
The recapture of Idlib would be a major boost to Russia which entered the Syrian conflict nearly three years ago ostensibly to defeat terrorism. Once Idlib has been retaken Russia can justifiably claim victory and set about shaping a credible conflict resolution strategy.
However, for Syria’s main ally Iran, the situation is not so clear cut. Whilst not opposed to the offensive on Idlib, the Islamic Republic is less sanguine about its outcome and repercussions. Above all, Iran fears to come under greater pressure to withdraw its forces from Syria once the last piece of rebel territory has been retaken.
A Jihadist redoubt?
As part of the psychological and political preparation for the offensive, Russian and Syrian propaganda has consistently presented Idlib province as a bastion of Al-Qaeda aligned jihadist groups. Formerly known as Jabhat Al-Nusra, these factions now operate under the banner of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham.
The Russian and Syrian contention is true to a point. HTS is widely recognised as the dominant rebel force in Idlib and has in fact been trying to consolidate its position ahead of the planned Syrian-Russian offensive. But HTS does not have a monopoly on rebel activity in Ildib, as demonstrated by the proliferation of pro-Turkish opposition groups in the region.
The relatively strong presence of pro-Turkish factions – often organised under the so-called Free Syrian Army banner – allowed Ankara to pursue two core objectives in the north-western corner of Syria. Foremost, the pro-Turkish armed groups were a buffer against Syrian Kurdish militants aligned to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). Second, the pro-Turkish factions allowed Ankara to influence local politics in Idlib, principally with a view to containing the jihadist influence represented by the HTS.
An immediate consequence of Turkish influence over rebel activity in Idlib was Ankara’s ability to deal on equal terms with Tehran and Moscow in the north-western corner of Syria. The establishment of a “de-escalation” zone in Idlib in May 2017 appeared to be a major diplomatic success for Ankara as it implied the possibility of entrenching the local militant scene on Turkish terms.
But on the ground, the de-escalation zone in Idlib was a non-starter, as demonstrated by a military offensive by HTS to consolidate its local influence following the agreement between Russia, Iran and Turkey. Ankara’s failure to curb HTS’s influence shifted the political and diplomatic advantage in favour of Moscow and Damascus who set about preparing for the upcoming offensive in earnest.
Tehran’s unique role
Describing the situation in Idlib as “sensitive”, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, has claimed that Iran is trying to eject militants from the province with minimal human cost. Whilst he didn’t elaborate on details, it is noteworthy that Iran has form in negotiating independently with the most hardline rebel factions in Syria.
Most recently in July HTS and negotiators from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) reached a deal to evacuate people from the Shia villages of Al-Foua and Kefraya in north-western Syria, in exchange for the release of hundreds of militants in Syrian detention.
Nearly three years earlier IRGC-linked negotiators had reached a similar deal with HTS’ predecessor (the Nusra Front) and other hardline rebel factions for the orderly withdrawal of rebels and jihadists from the strategic town of Zabadani (near the Lebanese border) in exchange for a halt in attacks by the hardline Ahrar Al-Sham on the aforementioned two Shia villages in Idlib province.
The Islamic Republic’s unique ability to reach deals with the local Al-Qaeda affiliate, whilst at the same time supporting the Syrian government, will be fully tested during the upcoming offensive in Idlib.
In previous offensives, militants were given the choice of relocating to Idlib from other conflict zones in exchange for surrendering territory. This occurred most recently in July when thousands of militants agreed to cease fighting and relocate from Quneitra provinceto Idlib. This time around however HTS and other militants have nowhere to go.
The fact that the jihadists and the rebels’ backs are up against the wall is a major reason as to why the United Nations has warned of an impending “humanitarian catastrophe” in Idlib. It remains to be seen what deal (if any) Iran can offer to HTS to desist from fighting to the last man in Idlib.
Absent a credible deal, the IRGC and other elements of the Iranian intelligence apparatus in Syria will have to reach deep inside their networks to exploit HTS’ weaknesses, notably its vulnerability to internal and external subversion, as demonstrated by an assassination campaignthat has wiped out scores of the jihadists’ leading commanders and ideologues.
More broadly, the insistence on “minimal” human cost, indicates that Iran is intent on adopting a softer role in the Idlib offensive, effectively letting the Syrians and Russians conduct most of the hard fighting.
This tactic is more than just good public relations, as Tehran is genuinely concerned about the post-conflict phase of the Syrian crisis. As Israel and the United States apply more and more pressure on Russia to contain Iran’s activities inside Syria, there is a real risk of a shift in the Russian position.
Through deft and clever manoeuvres in the final stage of the war, Iran seeks to mitigate some of this risk by developing a sustainable post-conflict role.