Syria: Assad fails to recapture Idlib

July 25, 2019

The Bashir al Assad regime has made little progress in its attempt to recapture rebel-held territory in northwestern Syria. Rebels continue to control most of Idlib and parts of adjacent provinces.

The Assad regime with the help of Russia controls the airspace over Idlib and is able to bomb at will. But Assad's ground troops are ineffective. Mainly conscripts, they are not keen on fighting for a corrupt and repressive regime.

Charles Lister, a conservative but well-informed commentator on Syria, said: "For nearly two months now, this small pocket of territory has been the target of a full-scale assault by pro-regime ground and air forces … and yet, after more than 10 weeks, the regime has only recaptured approximately 1% of the territory, at the cost of hundreds of soldiers, dozens of tanks and armoured vehicles, and several aircraft".

In the past three years, Assad has recaptured other key rebel controlled areas, such as eastern Aleppo and eastern Ghouta. But the situation in Idlib is different in several respects.

First, these rebel areas were under siege, with little or no outside aid. By contrast, Idlib has a border with Turkey, which gives some aid to the rebels.

Second, in Assad's earlier victories, Iranian militia and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters played a significant role. Iran and Hezbollah have not been involved in the Idlib offensive.

Third, in the earlier Assad victories, Turkey’s role was to arrange deals with Assad whereby some rebels withdrew from areas under siege.

The first example of this was in Aleppo in 2016. Turkey arranged for some of the rebel groups it supported to withdraw from Aleppo in return for permission for Turkish troops to enter Syrian territory at Jarablus and nearby areas.

Turkey's aim was to prevent further advances by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

The SDF are the defence force of the democratic movement in northern and eastern Syria. This movement originated in three predominantly Kurdish regions, known collectively as Rojava.

There was a popular uprising in Rojava in July 2012, which began to spread into adjacent, predominantly Arab, areas by 2016. The SDF liberated Manbij from the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in August 2016.

Turkey's aim was to block the revolution's further expansion.

Turkey coopted some rebel groups into its war against the SDF. In January last year, several rebel groups accompanied the Turkish army in its invasion of Afrin, a predominantly Kurdish area of northern Syria.

The Turkish invasion of Afrin was conducted with the permission of Assad and Russia, which controlled the airspace over the area. This was part of a deal whereby Turkey encouraged rebels in other parts of Syria to either enter "reconciliation" deals with the Assad regime, or else move to Idlib. This deal helped Assad to recapture other rebel-held areas.

Idlib was an early centre of rebellion against Assad, and large anti-Assad rallies late last year showed that the population remains hostile to the regime.

However, some rebel groups are also very repressive and impose their interpretations of Islamic law on the areas they control.

Rebel groups have often fought each other for control over territory. In 2014, Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), an extremely reactionary group, attacked and crushed the Syrian Revolutionaries Front (SRF), an alliance of secular rebel groups. Some of the survivors of the SRF later joined the SDF.

JAN then carried out forced conversions to its version of Sunni Islam on the Druze population of the areas it controlled.

JAN, now called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, is the strongest rebel group in Idlib. It has fought against other rebel groups, including former allies such as the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham.

The democratic revolution in north-eastern Syria remains under attack. The Assad regime is a potential threat and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to invade. Following the Turkish invasion of Afrin, this threat must be taken seriously.

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