September 12, 2018

Thoughts on the coming battle for Idlib

This is a recapitulation of a Twitter thread concerning the upcoming battle for Idlib, based on two recent CNN interviews.

Lt Col Rick Francona, USAF (Ret): Syria would be insane to use chemical weapons in the assault on Idlib governorate. Syrian President Bashar al-Asad knows using chemical weapons will draw a military response from the United States, France, the United Kingdom, and now possibly even Germany.

It’s hard to understand the absurdity, but it appears that as long as you only use barrel bombs, artillery, rockets, and missiles to kill, it is deemed almost acceptable, but cross that line and use chemicals, the ire of the world demands a military response. So why use them?

There is no military reason for the Syrians to use chemical weapons. With Russian airpower, artillery, and rocket and missile strikes, combined with Iranian and Hizballah support on the ground, the Syrian military has the required force to reassert control over all of Idlib.

The “battle of Idlib” will likely be the last major military operation in the Syrian civil war, but it's not the end of the crisis. After Idlib falls - and it will – we need to address the political situation.

What of the US-supported mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)? Are they to be integrated into the Syrian Army? Not likely.

Will the Kurds be allowed some form of autonomy like their Iraqi cousins? Bashar al-Asad says no, as does Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

In fact, Turkey - our erstwhile NATO ally – wants all the Kurdish “militants” to leave northern Syria. By this, Erdoğan means all the members of the YPG, a Syrian Kurdish party that he believes is nothing but an extension of the PKK, a Turkish Kurdish separatist group recognized as a terrorist group by NATO. The problem: they’re Syrians, where are they going to go?

After the trilateral meeting in Tehran with the leaders of Russia, Turkey, and Iran, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia is worried about civilians in Idlib but finds it “unacceptable” when civilians are used a pretext to “shield terrorists” ... and supports Syria retaking control of all of Idlib governorate. Translation: Get ready for a bloodbath.

Erdoğan urged Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to include a [unilateral] ceasefire in the final statement on Syria. Putin said since opposition groups were not present at the meeting, there could be no such agreement. Teaching point: When it comes to ceasefires, the enemy also gets a vote.

On the United Nations proposal for the self-segregation of combatants and civilians whereby the combatants will voluntarily move from civilian areas. This is a non-starter; the opposition groups, be they rebels or the al-Qa'idah affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), will co-locate with civilians as human shields to raise the risk of large numbers of civilian casualties.

Despite reports that the Syrian regime is faced with a troop shortage and the Iranians and Hizballah are balking at providing forces as they did in Aleppo, I believe a Syrian regime assault on greater Idlib governorate is inevitable. The Syrians and Russians, with urging from Iran, are committed to the extermination of remnants of the rebels and HTS, no matter the cost.