While the conflict in Syria has largely faded from the news following the Idlib demilitarization agreement primarily brokered by Russia and Turkey in mid-September, a new Syrian military report cited by Al Masdar News claims that the Syrian military is set to begin a long-anticipated, major military offensive to retake the Idlib province from rebel groups.
Though the demilitarization agreement reduced the urgency for an imminent military offensive, rebel groups within Idlib through much of October repeatedly launched significant attacks on nearby government-held areas of Syria, resulting in exchanges of fire between rebels and the Syrian Army and greatly increasing the likelihood that the demilitarization agreement will soon collapse.
As a result, the Syrian Army appears to be moving forward with the offensive it had originally planned to begin in September. In one indication of this plan, over the weekend the Syrian Army closed the Morek crossing between government and rebel-held territory after rebels shelled nearby Syrian army positions. Al Masdar noted that the closure of the crossing is “one of the first steps the Syrian military is taking to prepare for this upcoming security operation in the southeastern countryside of Idlib.”
Al Masdar further noted that the Syrian military’s Tiger Forces, currently deployed at the Abu Dhuhour Military Airport, will be leading the offensive, which has apparently been approved by Syrian and Russian military leadership.
With rebels unified in al Qaeda* branch, no “moderate rebels” to protect
While the repeated attacks launched by the rebels following the ostensible “demilitarization” of the province certainly weakened the agreement, another overlooked factor that has made that agreement entirely useless is the recent announcement that all of the rebels in the Idlib province have now united under the single banner of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). HTS is the rebel collective formerly known as al-Nusra Front, which is Syria’s al Qaeda branch.
Last Wednesday, American-born ‘journalist’ and al-Nusra Front “media man” Bilal Abdul Kareem published a video on YouTube in which he interviewed al-Nusra Front/HTS spokesman Abu Khaled. In the video, Khaled states that “all factions” within the Idlib province have now formed a “joint operations room” to plan military operations, increase military readiness, and strike any person who seeks to contact “the [Syrian] regime or its Russian cronies” with an “iron fist.” Khaled added that this cooperation includes “all factions [in Idlib] without exemption” and that this was the “first time” that all Idlib rebels had united under one banner.
Prior to this announcement, HTS/al-Nusra was the largest faction in Syria’s Idlib, with an estimated 10,000 fighters. Over the past few years, it has come to dominate much of Syria’s rebel-held territory, a fact that has even been admitted by mainstream Western media since early last year. Now, as their own spokesman has revealed, this trend has reached its fulfillment, with HTS/al-Nusra now dominating “all factions without exemption” in Syria’s Idlib.
Watch | al-Nusra (HTS) admits that all Idlib rebels now united under al-Nusra control
With all Idlib rebels now operating under the al Qaeda banner, it is no longer possible to make the assertion that the province includes “moderate rebels.” Furthermore, given that the Idlib demilitarization agreement was created with the aim of separating “moderate rebels” from groups like the al-Nusra Front, the fact that the rebel groups have instead united behind al-Nusra eliminates the agreement’s entire purpose for existing: there are no longer any “moderate rebels” in the region to protect, by the rebels’ own admission.
As a result of this development, the Syrian military’s efforts to retake the province have likely been approved by both Syrian and Russian leadership not only to halt the continuing attacks on government-held areas around Idlib but also to target a region now undeniably under the control of a terror organization.
Idlib as buffer for Syria’s U.S.-controlled, resource-rich northeast
Yet, even though HTS itself has admitted that all rebels in Idlib are now under its command, it remains to be seen how the U.S. will react to an upcoming Syrian military offensive targeting the province. Indeed, prior to the demilitarization agreement reached on September 17, the Trump administration threatened to attack Syria for “any attack” it launched against Idlib, whether or not there were allegations of chemical weapon use.
A White Helmets banner towers over a Syrian rebel checkpoint Idlib, Syria, late Saturday, Oct. 13, 2018. Ugur Can | DHA via AP
At the time, top U.S. government officials claimed that militants in the province are “not terrorists, but people fighting a civil war against a brutal dictator.” However, just a year earlier, the U.S. government’s Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL (Daesh, ISIS) Brett McGurk called Syria’s Idlib province “the largest al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11, tied directly to Ayman al-Zawahiri [current leader of al Qaeda],” immediately adding that al Qaeda’s presence in Idlib was a “huge problem” and had been so “for some time.”
It seems unlikely that the U.S. will suddenly admit that it has been protecting an al Qaeda enclave in Idlib. Indeed, the U.S. knows that if the Syrian military succeeds in driving rebels from Idlib, its next target will be the 30 percent of Syrian territory currently occupied by the U.S. in the country’s northeast. That area includes more than 90 percent of all Syria’s oil and gas potential, as well as most of its agricultural and freshwater resources.
Thus, the U.S. will likely do all it can to prevent an upcoming Syrian military offensive in Idlib, with the aim of protecting its own interests in Syria, even if it means backing a force of rebels united in their allegiance to al Qaeda.
* Terrorist organization, banned in Russia by court order