For the Syrian government and its allies, an Idlib offensive would let them destroy their insurgent enemies, but it would also in their view be a chance to definitively reassert Syria’s sovereignty and territorial unity.
Still, there are reasons for restraint—for Russia, in particular, whose posture will be critical. It is Russia’s choice to provide air support to a Syrian ground offensive that will effectively decide whether an attack is viable. But Russia’s intervention in Syria has twinned a military campaign with a political one. Russia seeks to deliver victory to a Syrian ally that is, at war’s end, rehabilitated diplomatically and on its way to internationally sponsored reconstruction.
Russia cannot do that alone. It needs European donors, whom it has been trying to enlist in a new push for the organized return of Syrian refugees, which Russia is trying to leverage into diplomatic normalization and reconstruction funds for Damascus. And Russia needs Turkey, which has made itself an integral part of Moscow’s political efforts to manage the conflict and retool Syria’s political process to better suit Russian ends. By supporting a full-scale Idlib offensive, Russia risks complicating all of that.
Russia has also helped broker the negotiated surrender of de-escalation areas in Syria’s center and south, facilitated by overwhelming Russian air power. Russia is attempting something similar in Idlib, but it seems likely to fail. Idlib’s fall cannot be neatly choreographed. As Damascus has retaken the rest of the country, it has bused irreconcilable militants and activists to Syria’s north, mainly to Idlib. People now in Idlib are there for a reason. Many cannot survive under Assad’s reconstituted rule and will instead fight to the death. Local rebels have made a show of detaining individuals suspected of being in contact with Russia or the Syrian regime. One town erected a gallows as a message to would-be “collaborators.”
A Syrian military victory in Idlib will necessarily mean death on a huge scale, and mass displacement toward either toward Turkey or to Turkish-held areas whose humanitarian capacities, already strained, will be totally overwhelmed. Idlib’s population is multiples larger than Aleppo’s rebel-held eastern neighborhoods or Damascus’s East Ghouta suburbs, which fell bloodily to government forces in 2016 and earlier this year, respectively. And this time, there is no other Idlib to which residents can flee.
Turkey made a bet against Assad—and lost.
Carnage in Idlib, at this late stage of Syria’s war, would make a farce of Russia’s claims that Syria is stabilizing and that the time has come for large-scale, organized refugee return and reconstruction. It would deeply injure Turkey, whose top officials have warned that an attack on Idlib will collapse the political scheme Turkey and Russia have co-sponsored. That multilateral arrangement has been the basis for Russia’s multiplying, parallel political initiatives, aimed at re-centering Syria’s political process from political transition—which would mean remaking or removing Syria’s current leadership—to issues such as constitutional reform that are less threatening to the status quo. Many in Syria’s opposition who have participated in these processes, with Turkey’s encouragement, would have little reason to go on. They have no obvious future in an Assad-ruled Syria themselves, but they can at least engage on constitutional reform in order to buy time and space for Idlib’s residents. But if Idlib ends in violence, why would they pursue this path? Russia will have trouble organizing a political process with even the minimum level of inclusiveness and legitimacy that prospective Western donors demand.