The pro-regime coalition is poised to make further gains in Greater Idlib Province, adding on to already substantial territorial advances. Russia will govern the speed at which these advances happen based on its political calculus, both in Syria and elsewhere. The conflict has the potential to escalate dramatically, posing a risk to the U.S. and its allies.
The situation in Syria’s northwest is dynamic and has the potential to escalate dramatically. This escalation threatens the interests of the U.S. and its allies as Russia and Turkey face off in a region dominated by al Qaeda-affiliated groups. A Russian-backed military campaign that began as a limited seizure of terrain for the Assad regime has since evolved into a major undertaking within the Syrian conflict. Russia has set the conditions for the retaking a large swath of terrain along a key highway running through the area, and will likely continue the ground offensive until it achieves that objective. Turkey is moving reinforcements into Idlib in reaction to Russia’s push. Russia may decide to support the pro-regime seizure of significantly more territory in the coming months. Russia will determine the pace of the advance, independent of Assad, based on the balance it has established between its potential diplomatic benefits with its potential military risks.
Vladimir Putin’s Russia has long engaged in a series of parallel strategic endeavors aimed at expanding its presence in and projecting its power into the Middle East and surrounding regions. Russia launched its intervention in Syria in 2015 to preserve a Russian-amenable regime that allows Russia to use Syria for military basing that supports these goals. Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime have undertaken a series of operations to seize terrain and rebuild the Syrian state under Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Russia has launched a complementary diplomatic campaign to solidify its political legitimacy in Syria among Syrians, Russians, and the international community, strengthen the Assad regime at home and abroad, and set favorable conditions for a long-term Russian presence in Syria’s political and information spheres. A key component of this diplomatic campaign is the Astana Process, a series of meetings organized by Russia, Iran, and Turkey to discuss the Syrian conflict that operates independently of the UN peace process. The Astana Process allows Russia to portray itself as a global power with the ability to negotiate settlements to local conflicts while marginalizing Western powers.
Idlib province, a rebel-held area of northwest Syria, represents the largest remaining obstacle in the pro-Assad coalition’s campaign to restore the Assad regime’s territorial control of Syria. Russia, Assad, and their allies are now in the tenth month of a grueling ground offensive to retake this terrain from a variety of anti-Assad forces. Russia has used the phases of this military operation to strengthen its diplomatic position, particularly with regard to Turkey. Russia has alternated between military and diplomatic phases in the campaign, slowing its progress, but facilitating Russian and pro-regime gains both territorially and diplomatically. The changes between these phases often coincide with major Astana meetings. The offensive has accelerated significantly since mid-December as Russia stepped up its support for the operation in the form of fighters, equipment, and air support. Independent of Assad, Russia has decided the pace of the pro-regime offensive to suit its political and diplomatic goals.
The anti-Assad forces that control much of Idlib Province and portions of neighboring Latakia and Aleppo provinces (a.k.a. “Greater Idlib”) constitute the last remaining area of Syria outside the control of the Assad regime, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), or Turkish occupation. The rebel forces in Greater Idlib threaten the security of Russia’s main base in Syria with weaponized drones and indirect fire. These forces also control a stretch of the key M5 Highway, which connects Syria’s two largest cities of Damascus and Aleppo. Al Qaeda-affiliated Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) dominates control over much of Greater Idlib, although the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) and an array of smaller factions retain a presence in much of the region. Pro-regime forces began their offensive in May 2019 and have since seized several key cities, including Khan Sheikhoun on August 21, Ma’arat al Nu’man on January 28, and Saraqib on February 7.
Russia and Assad have undertaken a massive campaign to displace the local population and worsen the already dire humanitarian situation in the region. This campaign not only puts pressure on local factions who must divert resources to maintain security, but also Turkey, which has closed its border to additional refugees from Syria. Greater Idlib is home to approximately 3-4 million civilians and internally displaced persons (IDPs). The latest phase of the pro-Assad offensive has displaced approximately 700,000 people since November. Both Syrian and Russian forces regularly strike civilian infrastructure, including urban centers and hospitals.
The displacement of civilians toward the Turkey-Syria border is a component of a larger Russian campaign to contain Turkish actions in Syria. Despite an often-pragmatic relationship between Russia and Turkey in Syria, the two countries ultimately have extremely different desired end states and priorities in the country. Russia views Turkey primarily as a NATO actor in Syria, along with the United States. Russia is taking a two-pronged approach to undermine the possibility of a U.S.-Turkey NATO zone that could stretch from Deir ez Zour province in the east to Latakia in the west. One prong of this effort is to constrain Turkey’s actions in Idlib, while the other prong involves Russia working with Turkey to counter U.S. actions in eastern Syria. Russia has been frustrated by Turkey’s inability or unwillingness to control rebel factions in Greater Idlib per its agreements with Russia. Russia and Assad’s efforts to exacerbate the humanitarian and displacement situation on Turkey’s border is a means of warning Turkey of the consequences of their inaction without needing to strike Turkish forces directly.
Conclusion and Forecast
Russia has set conditions for a full retaking of the M5 Highway in the coming weeks. Russia may attempt to gain significantly more terrain in Greater Idlib, including Idlib City, once the highway is secure. However, the terrain of Greater Idlib beyond the M5 is tactically advantageous for the defending anti-Assad forces. These groups have prepared extensive fortifications and defenses, including tunnels, in several regions of Greater Idlib, especially in the western mountainous regions. As a result, even after the capture of the M5, Russia may revert to a diplomatic phase of the fight. If the Russian-led campaign gains sufficient initiative to move beyond the M5, the ensuing battle will likely require forces to engage in urban warfare in Idlib City, where the local powerbroker, Hay’at Tahrir al Sham, has likely prepared for a siege. Russia would have to undertake a campaign to depopulate the city through airstrikes and artillery, risking an increased response from Turkey and the international community including the United States. Russia will likely be able to achieve certain objectives beyond the M5 Highway, but the progress will be slow and driven by Russia’s diplomatic concerns as well as its military might. The Syrian Civil War remains far from over.
 “International Crisis Looms as 700,000 Flee Syria’s Idlib: U.S. Envoy,” Reuters, January 30, 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-security-us/us-envoy-700000-displaced-in-northwest-syria-idUSKBN1ZT1SU.
 Evan Hill, Christiaan Triebert, Malachy Browne, Dmitriy Khavin, Drew Jordan, and Whitney Hurst, “Russia Bombed Four Syrian Hospitals. We Have Proof.” New York Times, October 13, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/video/world/middleeast/100000005697485/russia-bombed-syrian-hospitals.html; Christiaan Triebert, Evan Hill, Malachy Browne, Dmitriy Khavin, and Aaron Byrd, “We Proved Russian Pilots Bombed a Hospital. Then They Did It Again.” New York Times, November 14, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/video/world/middleeast/100000006815692/syria-hospitals-russia.html; “Russian Air Strikes on Syria Market Kill 23: Monitor,” AFP, July 22, 2019, https://www.france24.com/en/20190722-russian-air-strikes-syria-market-kill-23-monitor.