Critical developments in the Syrian conflict bring uncertainties and new dangers

The new assault on Idlib, Turkey's verbal attack on Assad and the opposition's rejection of Sochi talks are ominous signs for the year ahead

Opposition fighters stock up and prepare ammunition near Al-Tamanah, in Syria's northwestern rebel-held province of Idlib during ongoing fighting against government forces on January 2, 2018.  / AFP PHOTO / OMAR HAJ KADOUR
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Recent months have seen some critical developments in the Syrian conflict. As the Syrian regime and its allies focused on recapturing areas from ISIL in eastern Syria and de-escalating the conflict elsewhere, most of the front lines throughout the country had gone relatively quiet. Russia additionally managed to achieve results on a political level and raised the hopes of the rebels’ backers that Moscow, unlike Washington, could get things done.

The new reality enabled the regime’s camp to redraw both the political and military maps, with an inverse outcome for the opposition. Turkey, for example, seemed fully on board with Russian plans to stabilise the country.

But this might begin to change this year. In an unprecedented move – at least since the summer of 2016 – the Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a statement condemning Bashar Al Assad. He described him as a terrorist and affirmed that he has no place in the future of Syria. The regime and allied forces have also launched an assault against the rebels in Idlib and Hama, despite an existing de-escalation agreement guaranteed by Russia and Turkey.

The latest assault has multiple implications for the conflict and might put an end to a plan that has so far prevented what could potentially become the largest mass exodus of civilians in years.

The attacks are still limited to the southern countryside of Idlib and the northern villages of Hama, and a counter-attack by the rebels seems to have so far contained the initial regime advances. But this move signals that a long-anticipated assault on Idlib, derailed for military and political considerations, might now be under way.

The assault would target a province of about two million people, many of whom had been displaced from other parts of Syria. The province managed for a year to escape a repetition of Aleppo, as several parties to the conflict sought to spare it the destruction of other cities.

Idlib has presented a challenge for different parties to the Syrian conflict. For the regime and its allies, the province was the largest remaining base for the opposition and so was a natural target after the recapture of Aleppo a year ago. For western countries like the United States, Idlib had become a stronghold for Al Qaeda, as Hayat Tahrir Al Sham and other extremist formations had tightened their grip gradually on the region over the past two years.

For the two camps, while maintaining the status quo in Idlib would worsen the situation for them in the future, eastern Syria became or remained the focus. As the US began to increase its sphere of influence in the east, the regime turned its attention and resources to ISIL-held areas in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor.

The regime recently announced the end of its campaign in the east and has thus freed up resources to start what its supporters regard as an overdue campaign. And Idlib in the northwest now appears to be running out of luck.

The campaign is not a done deal yet. It is still unclear, for example, if the regime has the ability to launch such a campaign without seriously disrupting political and military achievements made by Moscow elsewhere. Most of the front lines in the conflict today are calm and the regime relies all too heavily on ground forces supplied by Iran and air strikes provided by Russia. This was in plain sight in places like Deir Ezzor and the Syrian Desert near the Jordanian borders in recent months.

There are also doubts over whether the attacks over the past few days do in fact signal the start of the long-anticipated campaign to begin with. Russian officials have indicated that Moscow is determined to declare a political triumph after Vladimir Putin's recent visit to Syria, where he declared a military victory and subsequently a scale-down, as officials told Ibrahim Hamidi, of the pan-Arab daily newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.

The Russian president is reportedly keen to organise the regime summit in the Russian city of Sochi before the presidential election in March. If this is his intention, then the regime’s campaign will make that conference far-fetched, since the opposition has already rejected the invitation because of the suspected motives behind it.

The regime’s gains over the past year were made possible by Russia’s effort to neutralise the rebels’ hotspots in much of the country. The relative calm in Idlib was similarly made possible by the ability of Russia and Turkey to work closely to prevent an alternative preferred by the regime and Iran. These dynamics, along with the American gains against ISIL, caused the various pieces of the Syrian conflict to fall into place.

But the increased help provided by Russia and Iran does not necessarily translate into lasting strength for the regime. The situation is still fragile and could unravel any moment. Internally, the rebels are weakened. But weakness will not lead to surrender anytime soon. This resolve was evidenced in the near unanimous rejection last week of the Russia-sponsored Sochi summit, expected to be held at the end of this month, which might well be a factor behind the regime's resumption of hostilities over the past few days.

Turkey's escalation in rhetoric against the regime, the regime's assault in Idlib and the opposition's rejection of the Russian summit present ominous signs for the conflict in the year ahead. They could undermine the Russian rush to organise a political theatre before the election and deprive Turkey of the ability to focus on challenging the Kurdish presence near Idlib, in Tal Rifaat. But more importantly, these developments bring with them new uncertainties and dangers about the direction of the conflict in the coming months.