Idlib's Problems Are Just Getting Started
Roland Bartetzko and Christopher Solomon
The first foray of the United States into Syria’s civil war may deter the regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad from further use of Sarin gas or chlorine on civilian populations. Some within the administration have suggested the threat could be expanded to include the government’s use of barrel bombs. The April cruise missile strike could yet transition into political leverage which could see Russia restrain Assad’s use of chemical weapon as an instrument of fear in western Syria. However, the policy options for the Trump Administration will now only be severely compounded as Assad and his allies resume and intensify conventional warfare against western Syria’s opposition areas.
A Politically Volatile Situation
As President Trump ultimately does not desire to risk complicating things further with Russia over Syria, Assad will have a free hand to carry out a campaign in Idlib over the next several months. His Minister of National Reconciliation Affairs and leader of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party Ali Haidar said in a January interview with Reuters that the government was prepared for open battle with the rebel groups and said, “The Syrian state is clear in its policy when it said it will not forego any patch of Syria, and I think Idlib is one of the coming hot areas.” As we saw in Aleppo, the offensive will rely on a doctrine overwhelming force and brutality. This will compound the geopolitical and humanitarian situation in a way that Washington and Western Europe are not prepared for.
The military direction of the Syrian government after Aleppo is becoming clear. The negotiations in Geneva and Astana are simply buying the Syrian regime and Russia the time they need to retake as much territory in Syria as militarily possible. Establishing authority over restive regions has been a challenge for Syrian leaders in Damascus. Adib Shishakli was remembered prominently for his violent confrontation with the Druze in 1954. Indeed since the 1960’s, Idlib province has always had relatively weak ties with the Baath Party’s state system. Analysts have pointed out that Idlib province will be at the top of the list for Assad’s long term goals. Idlib province shares porous borders with Turkey’s Hatay province, home to a large concentration of Syrian refugees. Hatay will continue to act as a safe area for people and materials, positioning Idlib as the central hub for Syrian rebel military planning and a direct strategic threat to Assad’s authority. Regime forces would need to cut off Idlib’s access to Hatay, including the Bab al-Hawa border crossing, in order to fully implement an encirclement of Idlib’s rebels.
Turkey, for its part, has limited control or influence over the Islamist rebels in Idlib. As demonstrated by its recent airstrikes against YPG positions, Turkey will be more concerned with confronting the YPG and its assets in Afrin, where Russia recently set up shop training Kurdish fighters, than tackling Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib. This leaves it to the U.S. to resume targeting Al Qaeda-linked militants in the area as it did with the Shaykh Sulayman training camp located in Idlib and an airstrike that killed Mohammad Habib Boussadoun al-Tunisi, a Tunisian Al Qaeda figure who had spent time in Europe, a practice that puts civilians at high risk has steadily intensified in 2017.
Ahrar al-Sham and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) remain the dominant forces in the province and have shown signs of internal ideological and military power struggles. Ahrar recently lost around 1,000 fighters along with key leadership to HTS.
A Rebel Shooting Gallery
An estimated 36,000 civilians have been relocated to Idlib province after the fall of Aleppo in December. Anti-regime elements are also being transported from Syria’s border region with Lebanon to Idlib. Known as the “four towns agreement”, reached on April 12th, the besieged cities of Zabadani and Madaya, near Damascus are now funneling their fighters and civilians (around 3,500) towards the rebel-held zones in the northwest. In return Fuaa, and Kefraya, largely Shia and pro-regime, moved between 8,000 to 15,000 people through rebel territory towards the village of Jibrin in Aleppo’s government-held countryside. As we saw with the deadly bombing of the buses in Rashidin, targeting Shia civilians, such population transfers are high risk amid a conflict where terrorism is a tactical norm.
Much attention has been focused on the government’s use of siege warfare. The most prominent, the siege and eventual the fall of Aleppo lasted for four years and ended with a victory of the government and other pro Assad forces due to massive help from their Russian and Iranian allies. Most modern military strategists avoid siege situations and the reasons for this are convincing: those ancient military tactics proceed very slowly and require enormous military and economic resources. Siege warfare is the counter thesis to modern mobile warfare.
Siege victories often have more than a symbolic than a military value. Aleppo has been branded as “the mother of all battles” and even compared with the battle of Stalingrad, but in reality many of the besieged troops saved themselves from annihilation and a final decision regarding the outcome of the Syrian war has been postponed. And in Mosul, the defenders had already brought their most valuable assets to other cities or out of the country, long before the “most decisive battle of the newest history of Iraq” had even started.
Still, there are convincing reasons why Syrian military planners prefer sieges.
First of all, a siege favors the army with the greater economic power. While in an open field battle, the outcome is less secure and sometimes the stronger side is defeated by the opponent’s superior tactics or mobility. With a siege they can play it safe.
The decisive weapons in siege warfare are the artillery and air power. A military that possesses these assets will be more inclined to engage in siege warfare. On the other hand, the 6 month siege of Kobani ultimately failed, because it was the defenders who profited from air strikes which were efficient enough to loosen the Islamic State’s (IS) grip on the city. In addition, Kobani was not completely encircled and its defenders were able to receive vital reinforcements from the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga. The siege was a spectacular failure for the IS in terms of loss of personnel and leadership.
As recent historical sieges have shown, they can become increasingly complex. A siege initiated from one side can result in a counter siege from your opponents. While the Croats held the Eastern part of Mostar under siege, the Bosnian Muslims started to besiege the Croatian enclaves around the city of Vitez in Central Bosnia. In both places, the attacker had enough military strength to end the siege with a victory, although not without sacrificing many of their soldiers, but both sides refrained from more than sporadic and symbolic assaults as nobody wanted to disturb the precarious balance. Sometimes, as what played out in Aleppo there can be even sieges inside of a siege, when a neighborhood in a besieged place remains loyal to the besiegers. Sieges often last for years and these stalemate situations are usually a good time for ceasefire and peace negotiations. Sieges encourage diplomacy.
Whether it’s in Sarajevo, Mosul or Aleppo, it’s always the civilian population that is paying the price for a prolonged war. When large military forces are amassed in relatively small urban areas, often mingled with the civilian population, civilian casualties are unavoidable- even without the use of such infamous (and unprecise) weapons like barrel bombs or improvised artillery pieces, the so-called “hell guns.” For civilians and combatants alike, conventional weapons will always have a devastating effect in the face of unrestricted total war. Indeed, although chemical weapons cemented their reputation in WWI, it was the water cooled machine gun and high rates of fire which maximized the killing in the war’s no man’s land. One machine gun unit in WWI was thought to equal the firepower of an estimated 80 rifles.
The battle for Mosul and the fall of Aleppo have shown that without massive help from their allies no side has a clear advantage and the sieges wouldn’t probably even have started or would last even longer. In both cases, foreign military intervention gave the attacking forces the necessary edge to tip the balance in their favor. A possible battle for Idlib City would move across the same lines. The Syrian government forces, encouraged by their victory in Aleppo, could very easily amass enough forces to surround the city and start a new siege.
Land and Legitimacy
Idlib, however, is not Aleppo or Mosul. It is much smaller in size, with a prewar population of only 165,000 (compared to Aleppo’s 1.8 million) and, due to its small territory, there is simply not enough depth to mount an effective defense. Additionally, the city’s geographical location, situated in a basin, makes it very easy for the attackers to direct their artillery fire and air strikes. Barrel bombs and heavy artillery would have a devastating effect on Idlib’s mostly two on three story buildings.
Still, a defender rarely choses to be besieged (a notable exception are the French forces during the battle of Dien Bien Phu, 1954), and taking into account that not only military objectives play a role in siege warfare, a long battle could be ahead for Syria’s last rebel bastion. The battle for Idlib won’t be a small operation, though. First of all, in order to reach the city, Syrian government forces and their allies have to cross more than miles of land which is either held by the rebels or the local population is sympathetic to their cause. Unlike the Iraqi Army when preparing for the Mosul operation, Assad’s troops won’t have the luxury to assemble their attacking forces in a quiet and peaceful environment.
To operate in a hostile environment, a military needs armor. The Syrian Army is well equipped to do this job: they still boast a capable tank force, mainly consisting of Russian and Soviet era T-55, T-62 tanks but they also have been recently reinforced by new Russian deliveries of T-72’s and an unknown number of the formidable T-90 Main Battle Tank. The Russian arms manufacturer, UralVagonZavod has reported a record level of tank sales to Syria. Artillery will also be the Syrian army’s biggest asset in an upcoming battle. With at least 2,000 artillery pieces, it will be the decisive weapon in an eventual attack Idlib or any other city in Syria.
The Syrian Air Force has suffered a lot from the strain of years of civil war, not only due to the enemy shooting down their aircraft, but because of insufficient maintenance of their equipment and a high number of deserters and defectors. Nevertheless, Idlib’s defenders have nothing to match the Syrian Air Force’s old, but robust MIG-21 fighter planes and the few HIND-25 attack helicopters that are still operational. Both, artillery and the combined Syrian and Russian Air Force, have caused a devastating effect when they have been attacking urban areas in the past.
The government’s weakest point, on the other hand, is their insufficient number of troops. To hold control over an area, one needs to deploy a lot of ground forces which the Syrian Army does not possess. An eventual victory in Idlib would therefore be only of very limited value to them as they simply do not have the manpower to maintain a presence in the area. This is one reason why the Assad regime is terrorizing the civilian population: they lack the manpower to exercise control over Syria. Attacks with poison gas and mass killings of civilians are a sign of impotence and frustration.
For the rebels, their chances to successfully hold out against a government attack are rather bleak. The advantages they do have are the ability to fight on their home turf and, along with the support of most of the population, many of small towns and villages around Idlib City are under their control. The Syrian regime would have to clear of all rebel strongholds in a 6,000 square mile area before launching a major attack on Idlib City. If not, their flanks and supply lines will be extremely vulnerable, not only to insurgent activities, but also to bigger and coordinated rebel attacks that could try to break a siege from outside the city. However, the infighting amongst the rebels is something the regime will certainly try to exploit. HTS recently destroyed a weapons depot belonging to the Jaysh al-Islam faction (allied with Ahrar al-Sham) in Babiska, a sign of the growing tensions in the rebel camp.
Whatever the outcome of these future battles is, it will not drastically change the military situation on the ground. In civil wars, hybrid wars and in insurgencies as well, gaining territory is relatively meaningless-especially when the government lacks the resources to hold it. The situation can change overnight and a look on the map can be deceptive and fool us. HTS, when faced with a sustained military assault, will undoubtedly take a hardline towards the regime and any rebel factions and civilians that attempt to reach out for a ceasefire or safe passage.
What we do know for sure is that the humanitarian situation once again will deteriorate, even if no other poison gas attacks or mass killings of civilians occur. This will add pressure on the US administration to come up with a viable concept on how they will contribute to a solution. With Russia now on edge after the US airstrikes against the Shayrat Airbase, the Trump Administration’s options for military response will be extremely limited. With Russia cooperating with the Kurds in nearby Afrin, this may become the focal point for any mass exodus fleeing towards Hatay or the areas north of Aleppo. If the Trump Administration is able to rekindle a working relationship with Russia, this region might be the best option to provide relief for IDPs fleeing from Idlib. To pull this off, the Trump Administration will have to establish an understanding with Turkey, which has recently targeted Kurdish entities in Afrin. In this context, the Syrian civil war has to be understood as a conflict that is surpassing national borders and which can’t be solved by military and diplomatic efforts which are concentrated on only one small region.