Even as the Syrian government hoists its flag over the newly reconquered southern city of Daraa, its offensive in the southwest continues. The remaining pockets of rebel resistance are growing smaller. With the continued support of Russia and Iran, Bashar Assad will almost certainly retake the last holdouts there as well.
The only thing that complicates the offensive is Israel. Israel has been adamant that it will not tolerate Iranian or Hezbollah positions too close to its border – in fact, it will attack Iranian supply lines far from its border, as it did last month when it struck Syria’s border with Iraq near Abu Kemal. More recently, on July 15, Israel launched another strike near the Nayrab airport, close to Aleppo. Though some reports identified the target as a Syrian government installation, others claimed it was a logistics site used by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – a more plausible explanation, considering Israel has always said its fight is with Iran, not Assad.
Neither Iran, Syria nor Russia want to draw Israel into the fight in southern Syria – they all want Assad to reassert control there. And that’s why they will (largely) leave it to Assad’s army to reclaim it. It’s a difficult balance to strike, since Iran still has an imperative to expand its influence westward toward the Mediterranean. Hence the reports of pro-Iran militias, including Iraq-based Popular Mobilization Forces, roaming the areas disguised in Syrian army uniforms. Still, the threat from Israel will limit Iran’s involvement in the south.
Bigger difficulties lay to the north in Idlib, which, unlike the south, has a large Turkish presence. Turkish conventional armed forces are stationed there, and they support a network of proxy groups composed of rebel factions of the Free Syrian Army, which were instrumental in the taking of Afrin. (Estimates vary, but as many as 25,000 fighters were believed to have been rerouted from Idlib to participate in the Afrin offensive.)
Now, Afrin is mostly subdued. The Peoples’ Protection Units, dominated by the Kurds and considered a terrorist group by Turkey, is withdrawing from Manbij. Turkey is busy learning how to administer a conquered region. So while some FSA fighters will remain in Afrin and Manbij, more will be free to return to Idlib, where those fleeing the south will likely regroup, their flight made all the more easy by the cease-fires Moscow has been brokering while the Syrian military retook the south. In other words, when Assad finally consolidates control over the south, he will then have to face as many as 40,000 fighters in Idlib. That’s not even counting the Turkish military, which doesn’t want Syrian forces roaming around on its turf.
And when Assad faces these much larger forces in Idlib, he will probably do so without Russian air support. Moscow has no interest in starting a war with Turkey, and if the Russian air force were to support an Assad offensive in Idlib, the opportunity for direct clashes between Russian forces and Turkish forces (or their respective proxies) would be high.
In theory, Turkey and Russia could arrange a deal whereby Russia attacked only rebel positions in Idlib that are not allied with Turkey. In practice, neither side would be willing to take the risk. Indeed, in recent days Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reportedly spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin, during which he warned that targeting civilians in Idlib could destroy the spirit of the Astana accord. An anonymous Turkish official echoed the statement, saying Idlib was a “red line” for Turkey. Russia will likely cite the de-escalation agreement from 2017 as a reason to recuse itself from the offensive. Assad may have to simply accept a more permanent Turkish presence in his country.
After all, Turkey hasn’t spent the past two years establishing itself in northwest Syria just to give it up. It has an imperative to acquire greater strategic depth in the region, to meet what it considers a Kurdish terrorist threat along its borders and to insulate itself from Iran. Turkey has even begun issuing identification cards for people in northern Syria and is working to establish new systems of governance over the areas it has conquered. Retaking Idlib would require Assad to do something he has not yet had to face throughout the course of the entire Syrian civil war: risk state-to-state war – with a more powerful country to boot.
What happens in Idlib will, to a large extent, depend on Russia. Propping up Assad currently serves Russia’s interest, but Moscow doesn’t need Assad to retake the entire country for its interests to be satisfied. In fact, Russia benefits when Syria is divided between Syrian and Kurdish forces in the north. If those divisions enable Russia to maintain a semi-autonomous Kurdish presence in the north – which it could use against Turkey when convenient – then there’s really no reason for Russia to risk war with Turkey now. There aren’t enough benefits, and the costs are too great.