It began with leaflets. The Assad regime in Damascus dispatched helicopters to drop flyers over the northern province of Idlib which is controlled by several rebel groups, including extremists such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). On Friday, following the rain of paper, the shelling began leaving some 30 civilians dead, according to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Residents in Idlib have been waiting for the hammer to fall for months, knowing that the regime wants to return Idlib to its control after seven years of civil war. But with Turkey's observers in Idlib and Russian air cover on the regime side, the new battle taking shape could spark a larger conflict.
Idlib Governorate has absorbed many of the 6,000,000 Syrians internally displaced from fighting in eastern Ghouta, Homs, Aleppo and other places over the last seven years. In many cases, the regime has sought "reconciliation" as it launches one offensive after another, promising locals that they can go back to their normal lives if they lay down their weapons in support of the rebellion. But in each case there have been hard core fighters, many of them connected to extreme religious groups, that have refused to surrender.
In these cases the regime, after bombing and destruction, has let the resistors be bussed north. Idlib thus became the dumping ground for all the remnants of the seven-year war. It was saved from a regime offensive because Damascus wanted to pick off the easiest targets first, and because Russia has been hosting talks in Astana and Sochi with Iran and Turkey to discuss the situation in northern Syria.
Idlib was a "de-escalation" zone over the last two years but it was also a zone of contention, especially along the governorate's borders. Groups like HTS which Damascus views as al-Qaeda linked terrorists, are not seen as part of the de-escalation agreement. Though HTS has a great deal of power in Idlib, it is intermixed with other rebel groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Sham. These groups don't get along, and some have been targeted by terrorist and IED attacks by the others. In July for instance, ISIS tried to blow up a Faylaq Sham vehicle. HTS has also sought to arrest hundreds of people that wanted reconciliation with Damascus over the last weeks, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Turkish forces began moving into Idlib last year, and in May they set up 12 observation points around the governorate. According to Turkish daily Hurriyet, HTS fighters have escorted some of these Turkish patrols. This creates a volatile situation. If the regime moves too far into Idlib it will run into Turkish forces. Yet a map of the unfolding offensive that began over the weekend shows the Syrian air force and, according to reports, the Russians have been active in the skies over Idlib. Turkey has not opposed this.
Russia, Turkey and Iran met at Sochi on the Black Sea on July 30. It appears that private agreements have been made about Idlib. According to Syrian state media, the offensive taking place in Idlib is not a priority. The media has sought to highlight instead an offensive against ISIS near Suwayda in the south. Russia's TASS news agency also has not mentioned Idlib recently, but has focused on Russian forces in Hmeimim Air Base south-east of Latakia fending off a drone attack. The drone was likely launched from Idlib on August 9.
In Idlib the Syrian Civil Defense, known as White Helmets, reported that civilians were injured in "barbaric aerial bombardment of residential neighborhoods in Khan Shikhun City."
Residents have also protested calling for Turkish protection. But in Turkey the main news is not the offensive, but rather claims that the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) are aiding the Syrian regime in the offensive. The YPG are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces in eastern Syria which fought ISIS alongside the US over the last several years. They also used to run the governorate of Afrin north of Idlib. However in January Turkey invaded Afrin alongside Syrian rebel groups and forced out the YPG.
For Turkey, the desire to emphasize the YPG participation is part of its larger dispute with the US that has grown over the last year. Turkey accuses the US of working with "terrorists" while at the same time Washington has announced sanctions on Ankara due to Turkey's detention of US pastor Andrew Brunson.
The Syrian regime offensive therefore comes at a time when Turkey is least able to challenge Syria in Idlib due to Turkey's own issues with Washington. Turkey has grown closed to Moscow, and opposition to the regime in Idlib could cause problems with the Kremlin, harming the Turkish economy more than it has already been weakened by US sanctions threats. The Turkish lira collapsed Friday to an all-time low against the dollar.
The Syrian regime faces a tough battle in Idlib and must decide how much of the governorate it wants to re-occupy. It may proceed slowly, trying to reconcile a few villages rather than engage in a full-force battle. The UN has warned one million children are at risk in Idlib fighting. One million refugees fleeing to Turkey would create a massive humanitarian crisis when Ankara can least afford it, and force intervention. For Turkey there may be a silver lining though. As HTS is pressed by the Assad regime, it may need to welcome rebel groups that are closer to Ankara, such as Faylaq Sham, thus increasing Turkish influence and removing HTS from its perch.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis. He has covered the wars on Islamic State in Iraq and reported from Turkey, Jordan, Egypt, west Africa and Eastern Europe.