Assad's move: After Aleppo, could Idlib be next?

The war in Syria is far from over, and the anti-Assad rebels have vowed to fight on. Many are congregated in Idlib province. But before the Syrian president elects to go after them, he has other options to consider.

AP Photo
Syrians evacuated from the embattled Syrian city of Aleppo during a cease-fire arrive at a refugee camp in Rashidin, near Idlib, Syria, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2016.

The restoration of Aleppo, Syria’s second city, to state control has given President Bashar al-Assad his greatest victory in nearly six years of bitter civil war and left rebel forces reeling and mulling their next steps.

Still, the war that has ravaged the country, left more than 300,000 people dead, and sparked the largest refugee crisis since World War II is far from over. Across Syria, rebel groups and militants of all stripes still hold territory and appear determined to continue their struggle to unseat Mr. Assad and his regime.

Amid the satisfaction at regaining Aleppo, Assad and his allies must now determine where to strike next if he is to fulfill his stated ambition of restoring full control over the country.

There are no shortage of options, from Idlib province in the north – much of which is under rebel control – all the way to southern Syria, where moderate Free Syrian Army factions are battling an affiliate of the extremist Islamic State. A determining factor is the exhaustion of the debilitated Syrian Army and the priorities of Assad’s key allies in Russia and Iran, whose respective military assets have proved critical in helping Assad cling to power.

“Ultimately, the regime’s next calculations will be determined by its ability to muster up capable manpower and by a desire to continue to shape a narrative that places it in a better geopolitical position for survival,” says Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington and an expert on the Syrian conflict. “None of the options open to it are easy, but there are some that seem to make more sense at this delicate stage.”

Some analysts have pointed to Idlib province as the next possible theater of operations for the Syrian Army and its numerous allies. Much of the province fell to rebel forces in the first half of 2015, a blow to the Assad regime that helped pave the way for Russia’s military intervention a few months later.

Speaking Thursday in Geneva, UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura warned that Idlib “could be in theory the next Aleppo,” and said a cessation of hostilities in Syria was essential if another such bloodbath was to be avoided, Reuters reported.

Possible precursors

Securing Idlib would strengthen Assad’s hold on the valuable western half of the country, where most of the population and major cities are located. But it could prove a tough nut to crack given the relative strength of rebel forces gathered there.

The province has become a destination for rebels who have signed agreements with the regime to leave other parts of the country, including those departing eastern Aleppo and others from areas around Damascus, the capital. The influx of additional rebel reinforcements could further complicate a future government assault.

A more pressing and achievable alternative might be, however, to first chip away at the eastern edges of Idlib province to expand and secure the government-controlled corridor leading to Aleppo.

“I don’t think they are going to go all out for Idlib all in one go,” says Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. “If you look at the map, they [the regime] still have a very narrow corridor leading to Aleppo itself. And the logical thing is that they will want to broaden that by pushing westwards from what they have got.”

Government forces may also push south from Aleppo to further secure the main transport links with Damascus, Mr. Sayigh says, adding that the recent pattern of regime bombings of nearby towns suggests the government forces are softening up the area for an offensive.

A Hezbollah without the ideology?

Still, Syrian government forces continue to suffer a major manpower shortage, the presence of its foreign allies notwithstanding. Some analysts say that the Syrian Army, which had an on-paper strength of around 300,000 before the conflict, can today only muster between 25,000 and 30,000 troops for offensive operations. That scarcity of available front-line troops could limit where the regime strikes next.

Last month, the army announced it is planning to establish a new commando unit dubbed the Fifth Corps and called for volunteers. Lebanese media reports said Hezbollah field commanders will play a major role in the new unit.

Additionally, a source close to Hezbollah and familiar with its operations in Syria says that the Lebanese Shiite group over the past year has helped establish and train another, as yet unnamed, unit of 50,000 Syrian volunteers based in Qusayr, a Syrian town lying five miles from the Lebanese border. The recruits will be commanded by Hezbollah officers and will be paid the same salaries as Hezbollah fighters serving in Syria, with the funds coming from Iran, the source says.

“You can say it is a Syrian Hezbollah without the religious ideology,” the source says.

If the existence of the new 50,000-strong unit is confirmed and if a Fifth Corps is also raised in the coming months, it could help the Assad regime gain new ground while holding what it has already recovered.

Securing the capital

Other than Idlib, the Assad regime may seek to gain more territory around Damascus, where in recent months it has conducted a series of “surrender-or-starve” operations against rebel-held villages and towns, forcing militants and civilians alike to yield and evacuate each area.

“That has allowed the regime to consolidate its grip around the capital, which is very important politically but also materially in that it frees up troops to focus elsewhere. It’s important symbolically because the threat or even the pretense of a threat to the capital, which [rebels in southern Syria] used to talk about, has completely gone,” says Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center.

Another option is to swing east to central Syria to retake Palmyra, which fell back into the hands of the so-called Islamic State (IS) at the end of November when the militants staged a surprise attack. IS had been pushed out of Palmyra in a government assault only eight months earlier.

An offensive against the Sunni jihadist group at this stage could signal to the international community, and especially the incoming administration in the US, that [the regime and its partners] “can be a counter-terrorism-focused force when it wants to be,” says Lister of the Middle East Institute.

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