Syrian regime pushed Idlib offensive under cover of other crises

More than 930 airstrikes were carried out in northwest Syria between November 2 and December 12, resulting in more than 80 people being killed.

Syrian President Bashar al Assad visits Syrian army troops in war-torn northwestern Idlib province, Syria, October 22, 2019 (photo credit: SANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Syrian President Bashar al Assad visits Syrian army troops in war-torn northwestern Idlib province, Syria, October 22, 2019
With the world distracted by impeachment in the US, a British election, Iranian tensions, Iraqi protests and Turkey’s invasion of part of northern Syria, the Syrian regime has been quietly bombing Idlib province and planning an offensive. It has wanted to carry out an  offensive since the fall of 2018 but was hampered by various problems, not the least of which is that its Russian ally has been selling Turkey S-400s air defense.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that more than 930 airstrikes were carried out in northwest Syria between November 2 and December 12. More 80 people were killed. In the last week several days of fighting killed 35 fighters from the Syrian regime and opposition in Idlib in northern Syria. Two airstrikes were reported on Friday, December 13.
Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad did an interview with an Italian TV station this month hoping to burnish his credentials in front of a European audience. He had many interesting things to say and Damascus was outraged when the Italians didn’t air the whole interview. So Syria’s media put the interview online and fed it to the Iranian media ecosystem. The central element of the interview was Assad’s claims that he is fighting terrorism in northwest Syria’s Idlib province, the last major area held by Syrian opposition and extremist groups.
He has a long-term plan in place to bring Syrians who lived under rebel control since 2011 back into the regime’s embrace. This is a big challenge because some 10 million Syrians were displaced by the war and of those, some 5 million have become refugees. There are almost 4 million in Turkey, a million in Jordan, and hundreds of thousands in Lebanon, Iraq and Europe. Many are not coming home. But the regime knows it must indoctrinate those who do and those it recaptured near Idlib and in southern Syria. And what about eastern Syria where the Americans still are working with the Syrian Democratic Forces. Syria is coming for them to, it is just a matter of time.
TO CLOSE accounts with all these rivals the regime needs fighters. It has lost tens of thousands of young men and is drafting what men are left. It sent negotiators to deal with the SDF, hoping to use them to fill the line from Qamishli all the way Manbij, the areas the US withdrew from. That is good news for the regime. It also wants to get some of the Sunni Arab tribes back under its control, from Deir Ezzor to Raqqa and other areas.
But its focus is Idlib. Assad paints Russia as pragmatic in allowing a Turkish offensive into areas near Tel Abyad and signing a ceasefire with Ankara. Russia also has gas deals and the S-400 deal with Turkey. Assad is worried. So he pays lip service to the brutal reality. The reality for Damascus is that it has been given a blank check to bomb Idlib while Turkey got to invade Tal Abyad. This is the trade off.
Turkey funneled the remaining Syrian rebels into the Syrian National Army, an ill-disciplined force of rebels and extremists that Turkey backs. They were sent to fight in Tel Abyad against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units. This is good for Assad because it means the last visteges of opposition or independent groups will die fighting eachother so that the regime can get back some areas of Idlib, while Russia, Iran and Turkey partition influence over the rest of Syria. Iran gets influence in southern Syria, Russia in areas in the north and Turkey in the north. The Russians intervened to achieve a balance, says Assad.
Syria’s regime is gambling on several things. First the S-400s must not be operational and deployed in northern Syria by Turkey. Russian media has reported some details about the S-400s and how they might identify friendly aircraft depending on the training of their crews. Will Syrian regime aircraft be labelled “friendly” in the system?
On December 11 the Russians met with Iran and Turkey as part of the Astana peace process for Syria. At the meeting they condemned the “illegal seizure of oil revenues from Syria.” It was the 14th meeting of the process that goes back to 2017. The parties also condemned any attempts to “create new realities on the ground, including illegitimate self-rule.” This was aimed at condemning the US and SDF, but it could also be seen as condemning Turkey taking over parts of northern Syria and imposing rule on the civilians. The statement was vague.
The usual boilerplate about “sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity,” was included in the statement on December 11. What is interesting is that the next  day Russia’s TASS clamed that the White Helmets, a civil defense group in Idlib were preparing to stage a “chemical attack.” This is also the usual conspiracy spread by the Syrian regime and Moscow that alleges that chemical weapons attacks are not really carried out by Damascus but rather are “false flags.” Either way, the report was designed to pave the way for a potential offensive by Damascus. The report claims that the rebels will create “provocation” that will be given to western media “accusing the Syrian government forces of using chemical weapons against civilians.” This inoculates the regime against any subsequent attacks by being able to say, “see we warned it was a conspiracy.”
Russia has other messaging designed to give a nod to Damascus. It denies stepping up attacks in Idlib after New York Times reports it bombed hospitals. Between the bombing and overstretched generators as winter sets in, Idlib is facing a bleak future. Yet Russia, Turkey and Iran ostensibly are concerned about extremists in Idlib and want a return to calm. However the presence of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib, a group linked to Al Qaeda, poses a threat and enables Assad to say he is fighting terror by bombing. Dozens of bombing raids were carried out last week.
Someone else is also bombing Idlib. A R9X “ninja” missile filled blades that resemble swards, killed an HTS member on December 3 near Atma (Atmeh). On December 7 another missile with swords hit a car in Al-Bassuta in Afrin, a former Kurdish area Turkey invaded in January 2018 that is now run by extremists. It is thought this is the third use of the ninja missile that uses its hard body to crush terrorists  to death rather than blow them up, lessening civilian casualties. Another strike in February 2017 killed an Al Qaeda leader in Idlib. The ninja-missile attacks are blamed on the US.
In the cruel logic of northern Syria the Russians and Turkey have a ceasefire in areas where Kurds had to flee in October and in Idlib, but neither is holding completely and both appear to allow for some fighting on the ground. The international community doesn’t seem to care about civilians in Syria and they continue to pay the price on the ground.