Syrian army seeks defeat of jihadi insurgents with assault on Idlib
The offensive has been criticised, but the government cannot afford to give up the province
Syrian Christians take part in a Christmas mass at a destroyed church in Raqa, the former ‘capital’ of the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria, on January 9th. Photograph: Delil Souleiman/AFP/Getty Images
Opposition fighters gather around a vehicle near al-Tabanah during ongoing battles with government forces in Syria’s Idlib province on January 11th, 2018. Photograph: Omar Haj Kadour/AFP/Getty Images
The Syrian army has been carrying out simultaneous offensives against insurgents in the northwest Idlib province, and Eastern Ghouta abutting Damascus, with the aim of restoring government sovereignty over the entire country.
The government has given priority to Idlib and Eastern Ghouta because jihadis controlling these areas routinely fire mortars and artillery shells into government-held Latakia province and the capital, Damascus.
Idlib, which is the last Syrian province to be held by hardline jihadi insurgents, was included in the “de-confliction” effort to end violence across the country launched last year by Russia and Iran (which back Damascus) and Turkey (a main supporter of its opponents). The province has a population of two million, more than half of them internally displaced persons.
The government argues its offensive is legitimate as Idlib is dominated by al-Qaeda-affiliated Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which is branded a “terrorist” group by the UN.
Syrian troops, backed by Russian air strikes, have advanced on the strategic Abu al-Duhur air base in eastern Idlib, where fighting continues. On Wednesday, Islamic State fighters reportedly entered the battle alongside Tahrir al-Sham.
The base, held by this group since 2015, is a major army objective as it lies near the main highway connecting Aleppo to Damascus, threatening to cut military routes and compelling civilian traffic to use secondary roads.
Yesterday, insurgents in Idlib said they had launched a counter-attack against the army and that, amid fierce fighting, they had made gains.
A Syrian military source denied the claim and dismissed insurgent talk of a counter-attack as propaganda.
Moscow has demanded that Turkey, which is responsible for imposing the ceasefire in this area, carry out its commitment under the de-confliction deal.
Since the Syrian army began its offensive, 100,000 people have fled Idlib, where thousands of insurgents took refuge after evacuating areas under Damascus’s “reconciliation” programme, which allowed fighters to surrender in return for amnesty or to go to Idlib with side arms and families. The fighters’ aim was to fight another day, which has now arrived.
Damascus cannot afford to allow jihadis, or Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army insurgents, to hold Idlib. The province borders Turkey, which funnelled anti-government fighters and arms into Syria after unrest erupted in 2011 and founded the rebel Free Syrian Army – which has been overtaken by jihadis – and the expatriate opposition Syrian National Coalition, with the aim of ousting President Bashar al-Assad.
In November, another faction laid siege to a military base at Harasta, northeast of the capital. The army broke the siege last week. Jihadi snipers in Harasta have interdicted the main highway between Damascus and Homs, forcing military, passenger and goods vehicles to take detours.
Moscow had, apparently, urged Damascus to postpone its latest offensives until after the Russian-sponsored “National Dialogue” gathering scheduled for January 29th-30th in Sochi in the expectation the Saudi-backed opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) would attend.
The aim of the meeting was to break the impasse caused by the government’s refusal to capitulate to HNC insistence on Assad’s exit before the beginning of a transition period to a new form of governance.
This impasse has foiled all attempts to forge a political settlement that would end the war. However, the HNC has not only refused Moscow’s invitation but has urged other opposition factions to boycott the talks.