Idlib Province and the Future of Instability in Syria
September 21, 2018
While some claim that an end to the conflict in Idlib marks the final stage of the Syrian war, there are three major factors that will shape the future of instability in Syria:
- An estimated 70,000 opposition militants with legitimate grievances against the Assad regime are positioned for a low-level insurgency that could last for years to come. Moreover, an estimated 12 million displaced Syrians offer a potential pool of recruits for this insurgency.
- Humanitarian and economic costs totaling an estimated $200-350 billion will require serious outside investment. A failure to address these conditions will almost certainly result in continued instability and a future relapse into civil war.
- The presence of outside and non-state military forces —including Russia, Turkey, Iran, the United States, Hezbollah, Syrian Kurds, and others—will continue to pose an obstacle to stability in Syria and exacerbate ethnic and sectarian tensions.
On September 18, 2018, Russia and Turkey announced an agreement to establish a demilitarized zone in Idlib province, delaying any immediate operations on the province that in recent months has seen Syrian military mobilization, Russian airstrikes, Turkish military reinforcement, and attempts to unite the Syrian opposition—including al Qaeda-linked factions—under a single banner. While the immediate offensive looks to be on hold, any discussion of Idlib province raises three sets of issues for Syria more broadly:
First, while some claim that the Idlib offensive marks the “final stage” of the Syrian war, it’s far from clear whether any offensive will take place, whether the Syrian opposition lay down their weapons, or whether Assad will allow them to be reintegrated into Syrian society. Some figures estimate that Idlib hosts up to 70,000 militants ranging from moderate opposition forces to radical elements with former and current links to al-Qaeda. With seven years of animosity pent up against the Assad regime and its allies, many of these militants may use the Turkish-Russian agreement to withdraw further and may try to wage a low-level insurgency with support and even sanctuary in Turkey. More radical elements, including Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), have expressed the willingness to defend Idlib until the end, but in the case of a major regime offensive, are equally likely to move underground just as Islamic State militants have done throughout Iraq and Syria, raising questions for the next iteration of both the Syrian opposition and the Salafi-jihadist movement in Syria.
Second, Idlib hosts an estimated 2.5 to 3.3 million civilians, most of whom are internally displaced from other regions of Syria. A long, drawn-out battle in Idlib will badly exacerbate the current humanitarian crisis, which is estimated at a staggering 6.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) within Syria, and 5.6 million Syrian refugees in the surrounding region.1 Any outcome in Idlib must address the economics of post-war reconstruction estimated at $200 to 350 billion,2 an annual GDP per capita of roughly $2,900,3 and the task of returning over 12 million civilians to their pre-war homes. Failure to address these issues will almost certainly result in continued instability and the possibility of a future relapse into civil war.
Third, the presence and role of outside forces in the Idlib offensive raise questions for these forces in Syria more broadly. While it appears Turkey and Russia intend to avoid conflict escalation in Idlib, there are serious doubts about the levels of control Putin has over Assad, Assad’s forces, or their Iranian allies. There is the distinct possibility that Assad will soon solidify gains and call for the withdrawal of foreign forces including Turkey and the United States, which raises the question of whether Assad can effectively reassert control Syria without the assistance of Hezbollah, Iranian, and other Shia militias. Lastly, the Syrian Kurds control nearly all of the Syrian territory northeast of the Euphrates river, but it’s unclear whether they will negotiate a political settlement with the Assad regime in return for autonomous territory. This report addresses these questions, as well as policy implications for the United States.
The Last Syrian De-Escalation Zone
On May 4, 2017, four so-called “de-escalation zones” for Syria’s civil war were brokered by the international community at peace talks in Astana. Overseen by Russia, Iran, and Turkey, these zones were meant to de-escalate tensions between the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition, provide humanitarian corridors, and lay the groundwork for a peaceful end to the civil war. These de-escalation zones included the creation of Turkish, Russian, and Iranian observation posts in and around Idlib province, which can be seen in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Map of Turkish, Russian, and Iranian “Observations Posts” in and around Idlib Province
Within six months of the May 2017 announcement, Syrian regime forces—including with the help of Russian air support—began a serious campaign to oust Syrian opposition forces from three of the four de-escalation zones. The first zone fell in April 2018, which included battles in Eastern Ghoutta and Douma; the second fell in May 2018, which included a battle for northern Homs; and the third zone fell in July 2018 when the Assad regime rooted out the Syrian opposition from the southern provinces of Der’ra along the Syrian-Jordanian border and Quenitra, near the Golan Heights.
Throughout much of the Syrian civil war, Idlib province has served as a relocation point for both moderate and radical Syrian opposition fighters and rebel groups defeated militarily by the regime in other parts of the country but not yet willing to give up on the revolution. In December 2015—one of the earliest uses of Idlib as a relocation point for the Syrian opposition—rebels from several villages around Homs withdrew under a ceasefire agreement and were bused to Idlib.4 Throughout 2016, as the Assad regime consolidated control around Damascus, thousands of rebels surrendered and were bussed to Idlib.5 From March to July 2018, thousands more evacuated pockets of resistance throughout the country, including eastern Ghoutta,6 Homs, Der’ra, and Quneitra near the Golan Heights. Many were put on buses and sent to Idlib.7
An Estimated 70,000 Opposition Militants
Some figures estimate that the fourth and final de-escalation zone—Idlib province—hosts up to 70,000 militants from various rebel groups, including both moderate forces and radical elements. Figure 2 includes data from a report by the CSIS Transnational Threats Project that show the high and low estimated numbers of Salafi-jihadi fighters in Syria are at near-all-time highs in 2018. Note that the data below does not include tens of thousands of additional armed opposition militants in Syria or the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who are susceptible to radicalization by Salafi-jihadist ideology.
Figure 2: High and Low Estimates for Total Number of Salafi-jihadi Fighters in Syria
Positioned along the Turkish-Syrian border, the remaining opposition forces pose a challenge to the Assad regime, not only because of their numbers, but also because of their support from Turkey. Turkish support could allow the opposition forces to withdraw into other Turkish-held Syrian territory, prolonging the conflict. However, Turkey does not exert control over the more radical elements of the Syrian opposition—namely the al-Qaeda-linked HTS (formerly Jabhat al Nusra, or Al Nusra Front)—which are likely to defend Idlib to the end or opt to move underground, presenting a new set of challenges to the Assad regime.
Positioned along the Turkish-Syrian border, the remaining opposition forces pose a challenge to the Assad regime, not only because of their numbers, but also because of their support from Turkey.
The rest of this section outlines the numerous opposition elements in Idlib province. The map in Figure 3 shows the locations of armed groups in Idlib, including HTS and the Turkish-sponsored, National Liberation Front (NLF). The map also includes locations of Assad forces, and Turkish military.
Figure 3: Control of Terrain, Idlib Province, February 2018