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Haid Haid

The impact of the ceasefire on Idlib

The Assad regime could take advantage of the ongoing truce to advance on the opposition-held province

A convoy (back) of aid vehicles heads to the regime-held Shiite towns of Fuaa and Kafriyeh in northwestern Idlib province, on February 17, 2016, during an operation in cooperation with the UN to deliver aid to thousands of besieged Syrians. (AFP/Omar Haj Kandour)

“More than 50 rockets have been fired at Jisr al-Shughour and surrounding areas [of Idlib] by pro-Assad forces stationed at Joreen military base [near Hama],” Hadi al-Abdallah, a Syrian journalist and activist, tweeted on March 7. Twelve people were reported killed on the same day in an air strike on a fuel market in Abu Dhuhur, a different area in Idlib province. These attacks, among others, show that the Syrian regime is taking advantage of the ongoing ceasefire to increase the number of attacks on Idlib. The ceasefire agreement excludes ISIS and Al-Nusra Front, which allows Assad’s regime to attack Idlib with immunity, as Nusra is a main component of the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition that controls the province. The importance of Idlib for the protection of the regime and the current dynamics of the conflict provide the regime with a tempting opportunity to advance on the opposition-held province.  

 

Jaysh al-Fatah, a loose alliance of a number of mostly Islamist factions including Nusra, was formed in March 2015 with the goal of seizing Idlib. The coalition achieved speedy victories over pro-Assad forces and by May 2015 completely controlled Idlib province, apart from the Shiite towns of Fuaa and Kafriyeh, which were besieged by opposition forces. This allowed Jaysh al-Fatah and other opposition groups to pose a serious threat to Assad’s forces in Latakia province, Assad’s stronghold. It also allowed opposition groups to advance near the Al-Ghab Plain in the Hama governorate, which is vital for the regime’s protection of the coastal cities and for securing their routes to Damascus. Abdullah, a Syrian activist in Idlib, highlights this threat, saying “the speedy victory achieved by Jaysh al-Fatah in Idlib was an indication of how fragile the Syrian regime was. This forced the Iranians to increase their support to Assad to stop Jaysh al-Fatah from taking over Hama and Latakia.”

 

The recent military gains by pro-Assad forces in Latakia and northern Aleppo also made it possible for the regime to advance towards Idlib. Russia’s extensive airstrikes and the Iranian sponsored militias assisted the regime in securing its core territory along the Syrian coast. However, pro-Assad forces continue their operations to expel the opposition from its last remaining positions in the Jabal al-Akrad mountains in northeastern Latakia. Seizing the opposition strongholds of Salma, Rabia and Kinsabba in rural Latakia brought regime forces within 15 kilometers of the opposition stronghold of Jisr al-Shughour in southwestern Idlib province. Therefore, Assad’s likely plan is to take advantage of the ceasefire and seize Jisr al-Shughour in order to secure regime defenses around Latakia province and prevent future attacks on the Syrian coast by opposition forces. Hasan, a media activist in Jisr al-Shughour fears of an imminent attack on the city: “We know that the Syrian regime is preparing to attack our city. The recent increase in attacks is just the beginning. Assad has been spreading rumors that Jisr al-Shughour is full of terrorist groups to justify attacking it without violating the ongoing ceasefire.”

 

The recent military gains in northern Aleppo also allowed Assad’s regime in February 2016 to lift the siege on Nubl and Zahraa, two pro-Assad towns that possess a Shiite majority. The regime’s recent capture of Al-Hadher and Tal al-Eis in northern Aleppo brought regime forces to within 20 kilometers of the pro-regime towns of Fuaa and Kafriyeh northeast of Idlib city. The combination of the two developments likely motivates the regime to attempt to break the siege of the Shiite towns of Fuaa and Kafriyeh. This is backed up by a recent report by the Institute for the Study of War, which predicts that the regime is most likely going to try to advance towards Jisr al-Shughour and relieve the besieged pro-regime towns. This task may not be easy, as it requires the regime to seize several key opposition strongpoints along the way. However, the ceasefire allows the regime to target the opposition and weaken them under the pretext of fighting Nusra. Haitham, a Syrian activist in Aleppo, confirms the regime’s ability to reach Fuaa and Kafriyeh if it wishes. “It’s clear from the areas Assad is trying to capture in rural Aleppo that he aims to reach the towns of Fuaa and Kafriyeh, which are the last two pro-regime towns besieged by the opposition,” the activist said. “By doing so, Assad will present this victory as a symbol for winning the war and will also allow him to access a source of manpower that he urgently needs.”

 

JNusra’s withdrawal from several of its positions in Idlib on February 25 as a defensive measure ahead of the ceasefire makes Assad’s mission in Idlib easier. Activists reported that the group withdrew its personnel from one northern Idlib town one day ahead of the implementation of the ceasefire agreement. The withdrawal included removing its checkpoints and evacuating some judges and military commanders. Ahmed, a Syrian teacher in Sarmada, a city in northwestern Idlib province, confirmed the group’s withdrawal: “Nusra stated that its withdrawal took place in order to not to allow anyone to use the group as an excuse to attack civilians. However, we know that they withdrew only to protect themselves.” Furthermore, the ceasefire could pose a challenge to Nusra’s ability to mobilize its forces and move them in large numbers, which could diminish the group’s military capacity.    

 

The internal division within Jaysh al-Fatah with regards to the peace process and the fight against ISIS has weakened the coalition’s unity. These differences have pushed some groups to defect and increased the tension among those who remained. Jund al-Aqsa, a jihadi group close to Nusra, withdrew from Jaysh al-Fatah and refused to participate in the fight against ISIS, which was pushed for by some members of this coalition. Ahrar al-Sham’s participation in the Riyadh meeting in December has led Nusra to publically criticize the group. The meeting, which excluded extremist groups, aimed to create a framework and mechanism for a broad spectrum of the Syrian opposition and rebels to engage in peace negotiations with the regime. Furthermore, the Syrian regime’s increased attacks on northern Aleppo in January 2016 also led to the withdrawal of Faylaq al-Sham from the coalition in order to focus its efforts on the fight in Aleppo. Pro-Assad’s forces could take advantage of Jaysh al-Fatah’s current fragility and strike Idlib under the pretext of fighting Nusra.

 

The Syrian opposition and their allies should find ways to stop the Assad regime from taking advantage of the current ceasefire to advance towards Idlib. Distancing themselves from Nusra publically could be a first step in the right direction. The US should also work with Russia to pressure the regime not to seize new ground. The danger of such attack on Idlib will not only risk the ongoing fragile ceasefire but would also allow the regime to attempt to eradicate what’s left of the opposition in the province. 

A convoy (back) of aid vehicles heads to the regime-held Shiite towns of Fuaa and Kafriyeh in northwestern Idlib province, on February 17, 2016, during an operation in cooperation with the UN to deliver aid to thousands of besieged Syrians. (AFP/Omar Haj Kandour)

Pro-Assad’s forces could take advantage of Jaysh al-Fatah’s current fragility and strike Idlib under the pretext of fighting Jabhat al-Nusra.