The Battle for Idlib

The Battle for Idlib

Two years ago, it looked as if Syrian President Bashar Assad was either about to be ousted from power or doomed to control an ever-shrinking area of Syria. Islamic State, Kurds and various rebel groups controlled much of what once constituted Syria. In fact, the frontier between Syria and Iraq was mostly a fiction as neither state controlled its borders.

However, in 2015, Russian President Vladimir Putin decided to support his long-time ally and provide military support to prevent him from falling from power and assist him in retaking lost territory. With Russian and Iranian assistance, Assad has been steadily winning back territory that was held by various rebel groups. Although the U.S. could have been an obstacle to this trend, America’s focus was on defeating Islamic State. Therefore, the U.S. has mostly not interfered in Assad’s recovery.

After gaining back several pockets of resistance in the southwestern part of Syria, the focus now shifts to Idlib, a province in northwestern Syria that borders Turkey. Unlike the areas recently re-taken, Idlib’s situation is much more complicated. There are several rebel groups in Idlib, a large number of displaced people and five nations with interests in the province. As a result, the potential is elevated that the operations designed to oust rebel groups will turn into a much broader conflict.

In this report, we will begin with a description of Idlib. The following section will examine the goals and concerns of the major players, including rebel groups, important ethnic and religious groups and the aforementioned nation states. Using this information, we will discuss the potential interplay among these groups and their efforts to contain the battle and what could lead it to spin out of control. As always, we will conclude with potential market ramifications.

The Lay of the Land

Idlib province sits in northeastern Syria.

(Source: Wikipedia Commons)

It was mostly a rural province prior to the breakdown of order in Syria during the Arab Spring. Its normal population is about 1.5 million. However, the current population is double that number as refugees from other parts of Syria have fled to this region. When the Russians brokered ceasefires in southern rebel strongholds, they ended the fighting by providing safe passage to Idlib. The World Health Organization estimates that 1.6 million of the current residents in Idlib rely on food assistance.[1]