By Dr. Christopher J. Bolan*
(FPRI) — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces appear poised to launch an offensive operation to retake all or portions of Syria’s last major remaining oppositionist stronghold in the Idlib province. All major players in this looming battle are posturing to shape the nature and extent of this upcoming campaign in ways that advance their particular interests.
Idlib is a province located in northwestern Syria. Since the outbreak of civil war in 2011, Idlib has been the site of frequent confrontation between the Syrian Armed Forces and any number of opposition forces—whether “moderate” such as the Free Syrian Army or others linked in varying degrees to radical jihadi terrorist groups including al-Qaeda. In the summer of 2017, Idlib was one of four so-called de-escalation zones established jointly by Russia, Turkey, and Iran aimed at reducing the violence between rebel and Syrian government forces. The Syrian government and its backers, however, have regularly exploited a loophole in these agreements that permits fighting against terrorist groups to reconquer one rebel enclave after another. The techniques to secure these military victories often included massive bombing of civilian infrastructure including hospitals and schools and devastating sieges designed to starve entire populations into submission. Often, the terms of surrendering these territories back to Assad’s control involved transferring remaining rebel forces and isolated civilians to the province of Idlib doubling its population to some three million people. As a result of Assad’s military victories elsewhere and these transfers of rebel forces, Idlib today remains the single major bastion of remaining opposition forces in Syria.
Assad himself undoubtedly favors a full-scale, no-holds-barred offensive that decisively restores unchallenged regime control over this rebel stronghold. Some press reporting indicated that U.S. officials believe President Assad has already approved the use of chlorine gas in the upcoming Idlib offensive. This prospective use of chemical weapons would come in direct defiance of the U.S. and coalition military retaliation he suffered back in April in response to Assad’s gas attack against civilians in the suburbs of Damascus. The White House has issued stern warnings of dire consequences should Assad employ these weapons.
For the moment, Russia seems poised to militarily back Assad’s desire to regain control over the rebellious province. Moscow has conducted airstrikes against terrorist elements operating in the province and has recently completed its largest naval force deployment in the eastern Mediterranean since the start of the seven-year-old Syrian civil war. As this battle looms, Russian diplomats have also warned the United States against taking “reckless steps” and have gone so far as to threaten to attack a U.S.-occupied base located at At-Tanf near the Syria-Jordan-Iraq border. In response, U.S. forces in the area conducted military exercises designed to underscore the capability of these forces to successfully defend themselves against attack.
Meanwhile, Iranian leaders who have provided invaluable political and military support to Assad’s previous military efforts have been largely quiet. This strategy is a sensible one for Tehran as leaders are understandably reluctant to provoke additional Israeli airstrikes in Tel Aviv’s escalating military campaign targeting Iranian forces deployed in Syria. Analysis suggests that Israel has conducted over 130 such airstrikes since 2013. Perhaps the most dramatic strikes took place in May 2018 when Israel launched its most extensive air and missile strikes since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War against dozens of Iranian targets in Syria killing more than 40, including 19 Iranians.
In contrast, Turkey has moved aggressively to forestall or at least limit the extent of Syria’s anticipated offensive. Since late 2017, Turkey has manned a dozen military checkpoints throughout the province as part of the de-escalation plan mentioned above. In the event of a full-scale Syrian assault on Idlib, these physical markers of Turkish presence would be quickly overrun. Fearing that prospect as well as the likelihood that a major offensive in Idlib could result in hundreds of thousands of additional Syrian refugees fleeing toward the Turkish border, Ankara recently has warned Moscow that an attack would not be tolerated and that the result would be a “lake of blood.”
Meanwhile, the U.S. position on Idlib has gradually moved toward increasing opposition to a major offensive. Initial U.S. diplomatic efforts were initially restrained and largely aimed at dissuading Assad from employing chemical weapons in any forthcoming assault. As an assault looks increasingly likely, however, senior U.S. officials have issued broader warning against any “military campaign in all its forms” and condemned any offensive as “objectionable as a reckless escalation.”
While a diplomatic resolution between Syria, Turkey, and Russia that forestalls an all-out assault is possible, it would seem that a military confrontation in Idlib in one form or another is almost inevitable given Assad’s desire to capitalize on the momentum generated by battlefield successes elsewhere.
The nature and scope of the coming offensive in Idlib matters and will have important implications for players at the tactical and operational levels of war. The 3 million civilians now struggling in Idlib will of course be most directly impacted. Syrians have now suffered seven years of brutal civil war. The war has killed hundreds of thousands, displaced millions, and witnessed the horrific use of sarin nerve agent and chlorine gas against defenseless civilian populations. UN officials have warned that a massive assault on Idlib will greatly add to this already deplorable list of miseries.
Beyond these substantial humanitarian concerns, however, the strategic impacts of any offensive in Idlib are likely to be relatively minor absent a direct military confrontation between any of the major outside powers engaged in Syria (a noteworthy qualification). Regaining control of Idlib would certainly represent another step forward for Assad and his backers in Russia and Iran, but American military forces and their Kurdish allies will retain control of northeastern Syria stopping Assad well short of his goal to re-unify all of Syria under his control. Moreover, an Assad victory in Idlib will do little to restore Assad’s legitimacy among the Sunni majority population who have suffered most acutely under his rule. Localized and periodic domestic opposition to Assad’s rule will remain an enduring feature of Syria—at least in the immediate term.
Additionally, even if Turkey is either convinced or compelled to withdrawal from Idlib, it will likely retain a significant military presence in or along Syria’s northern border to control the flow of refugees and deny the establishment of an independent Kurdish zone. Finally, any military campaign in Idlib will only add to the substantial costs of reconstructing Syria, which are already estimated to exceed $1 trillion, burdening both Russia and Iran with an unpayable bill for the destruction wrought by their support of Assad. Given these prospects, any offensive in Idlib is unlikely to prove decisive to the interests of any major party.
The tactical and operational impacts of the upcoming Syrian offensive in Idlib, however devastating for the Syrian people themselves, are not likely to significantly affect the most salient strategic outcomes of the Syrian civil war, which include the continued rule of the Assad regime over most of Syria, expanded Russian and Iranian influence in Damascus, a reduced but not totally destroyed jihadi presence, and the massive scale of reconstruction assistance that will be required to address the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people in the aftermath of civil war. These hard realities themselves pose important questions that will need to be addressed by U.S. strategic and military planners as they devise policies and programs going forward. These strategic realities and resultant questions are worth examining in more detail.
1. Assad’s continued rule from Damascus has been assured for the near future. President Obama’s calls in 2011 for Assad to “step aside” were never supported by meaningful policies to achieve that goal. Since 2015, Russian air support and Iranian-back Shi’a militia forces on the ground have bolstered Assad’s military fortunes and enabled him to reconstitute his control over the majority of both Syrian territory and its major population centers. The Trump administration came to office in 2017 accepting Assad’s continued hold on power as a “political reality” and emphasized that U.S. policies in Syria would be solely focused on defeating ISIS.
Of course, President Trump could suddenly declare the removal of Assad from power as a U.S. policy objective. After all, in announcing coalition missile strikes against Syrian chemical facilities in April 2018, President Trump denounced both Russia and Iran for “supporting, equipping, and financing the criminal Assad regime.” On the other hand, other senior American officials including the Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the time emphasized that regime change was not the goal of U.S. policy saying that the missile strikes had the narrow strategic purpose of deterring the future use of chemical weapons.
Absent a clear change in U.S. policy objectives, U.S. strategies would be better designed from the assumption that the Assad regime will continue to exercise dominant influence in most of what some analysts have characterized as “useful Syria.” To what degree the U.S. can work tacitly or openly with President Assad’s regime to advance American interests in battling ISIS and stabilizing Syria are open questions that demand answers.
2. Russia has established its place as a meaningful player in the Middle East whose interests will need to be factored into future U.S. strategic calculations (but not necessarily accommodated). Coming to the rescue of its sole remaining Cold War ally in the Middle East—President Assad in Syria—was really Moscow’s only option if it wanted to preserve access to its only naval and air bases in the region at Tartus and Humaymim. President Trump may well have harbored hopes that a personal connection with Russian President Vladimir Putin could convince Moscow to moderate Assad’s excesses and press for the removal of Iranian forces from Syria. Unfortunately, Russian efforts on both counts have been disappointing given Assad’s continued use of chemical weapons and the continued presence of Iranian military advisors in Syria.
Just how much to confront Russia over its support for Assad remains an open question. In calculating a response, U.S. policymakers will need to weigh the risks that U.S. pushback could unintentionally lead to direct military confrontation with Russian forces in the confined battlespaces in and over Syria. Russian foreign ministry officials regularly condemn the very presence of U.S. military forces in Syria as against international law and convention. In defending themselves against an attack on a small outpost near Deir al-Zour in February 2018, U.S. forces killed hundreds of Syrian-allied forces and Russian mercenaries. How and to what extent will U.S. policymakers respond to the inevitable future challenges posed by Damascus, Moscow, or Tehran to the continued presence of American troops in Syria?
3. Iran has demonstrated its ability to support and lead Shi’a militia groups to advance its interests in the region. Iran’s relationship with the Assad regime has a long history grounded in their shared interests in breaking their geopolitical isolation and challenging America’s dominant position in the region. The leadership in Tehran will not easily be compelled to abandon the Assad regime as Syria represents Iran’s only state-based ally in a region dominated by Sunni powers. Similarly, Assad remains absolutely dependent on the thousands of Iranian-led, trained, and funded Shi’a militias to maintain and consolidate his gains on the ground.
Another key question for U.S. policymakers is just how far is Washington willing to invest in pushing back against Iran’s presence in Syria? Russian leaders have recently admitted that they are incapable of compelling a complete Iranian withdrawal from Syria. U.S. policymakers will need to develop an integrated political, economic, and perhaps military strategy for achieving this goal while overcoming the active opposition they are likely to confront from Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran.
4. Jihadi forces will have been largely defeated, but not destroyed or eliminated. The anti-ISIS coalition has achieved tremendous military success in ousting militant jihadi groups from virtually all of Syrian territory. Idlib now remains the most significant jihadi stronghold hosting as many as 10,000 al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. Russia and Syria claim that these groups remain a threat that must be dealt with forcefully and effectively. Given the counter-terrorism focus of U.S. policy up to this point, how can this threat be eliminated while avoiding the major humanitarian catastrophe that would result from a major Russian-backed Syrian offense into the province? To what extent are U.S. policymakers willing to find common cause with the Assad regime, Moscow, and Tehran to eliminate any remaining pockets of jihadi terrorist groups?
5. Syria will remain a fractured country and society requiring major international assistance for a generation or more. UN officials have warned that an assault on Idlib could result in the “worst humanitarian catastrophe” of the 21st The Trump administration is reluctant to play a significant role in funding these efforts and has already suspended financing for stabilization projects in Syria. Instead, the administration is pressing other coalition partners for contributions. However, as mentioned previously, the tab for reconstruction in Syria is already estimated to exceed $ 1 trillion and is only likely to grow until an enduring political settlement can be reached. Syria is likely to overburden an exhausted international donor community that is already struggling to satisfy pressing humanitarian needs elsewhere in the region to include Yemen, Iraq, and Libya.
Ignoring the task of rebuilding Syria risks another failed state that remains mired in conflict, continues to generate refugee flows that jeopardize the stability of neighboring Jordan and Lebanon, and provides fuel and space to terrorists groups exploiting the fears and vulnerabilities of local populations. The questions for U.S. policymakers here revolve around if and how the U.S. can best identify, promote, and support those development programs that will most quickly and effectively restore some semblance of stability to Syria.
These enduring features of a post-civil war Syria will require U.S. policymakers to fundamentally reassess America’s strategic objectives in Syria, develop a coherent strategy engaging all instruments of national power to achieve those goals, and then tailor the specific missions and composition of whatever U.S. military forces are to remain.
The administration appears to be at an important inflection point for doing so. Statements by senior State Department officials recently signify a substantial expansion of U.S. objectives extending beyond the fight against ISIS that now include expelling all Iranian and Iranian-backed forces and establishing a “nonthreatening government” in Damascus. These goals will remain illusory, however, unless U.S policymakers develop effective strategies that respond to the basic realities of the conflict described above and answer the broader questions posed by these realities.
The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the U.S. government or Department of Defense.
About the author:
*Dr. Christopher J. Bolan, a Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Program on the Middle East, is Professor of Middle East Security Studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College.
This article was published by FPRI.