Idlib is home to nearly three million people, half of whom are internally displaced [File: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters]
Just weeks after scoring a major military victory in the south, Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad appears set to fully open a new, more complex, front in the country’s war – now in its eighth year.
The key northwestern Idlib province is the Syrian opposition’s last major bastion in the country. It is currently home to nearly three million people, half of whom are internally displaced, and encloses what once was a major commercial highway linking Syria to Turkey and Jordan.
Along with sharing a border with Turkey, Idlib is adjacent to Latakia province, a Syrian government stronghold that is home to the biggest military airbase by its major ally, Russia.
Idlib’s strategic importance is what makes a government-led assault imminent, experts say, and its capture would put the vast majority of the country under Assad’s control.
Still, several scenarios may unfold in Idlib, given the direct presence of Turkey which backs certain rebel groups in the area and operates as a guarantor power to ensure security as per a “de-escalation zone” agreed with Assad allies Russia and Iran in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana.
Observers believe that an assault against rebels will present Assad with unprecedented challenges for the first time since 2015, when Russia’s intervention in Syria’s war tilted the odds in his favour.
Here are the four most widely expected scenarios.
Scenario A: Fully-fledged assault to result in ‘bloodbath’
An all-out attack by Assad’s forces against rebels in Idlib is the most the likely development, according to analysts.
They say such an assault will be similar to recent government offensives targeting other rebel-held areas, most recently Deraa and Eastern Ghouta, despite them also being part of the so-called de-escalation zones aimed at shoring up ceasefires.
Amid the ferocious offensives, Russia brokered a string of surrender deals with the rebels, most of whom departed with their families for Idlib, dubbed a “dumping ground” for evacuees.
In recent weeks, government forces have begun amassing near Jisr al-Shughour, a town on Idlib’s western edge. Earlier this month, they launched artillery and rocket fire at areas adjacent to the provinces of Hama, local media reported.
Conversely, key rebel factions in Idlib announced recently the formation of a new coalition, with some 70,000 fighters pledging to fight against Assad’s forces.
The alliance, known as the National Liberation Front allince, includes some 11 Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army groups (FSA) groups. But it excludes Hayet Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda affiliate which currently controls about 60 percent of the province.
In the past, Russia has cited HTS’ presence as the reason for attacking areas in Syria’s Idlib.
Such sporadic attacks have prompted thousands of civilians to flee deeper into rebel-held territory or to neighbouring Turkey.
This could “easily happen again” in the face of a major offensive, Omar Kouch, a Turkey-based Syrian analyst, told Al Jazeera.
The recent escalation and concerns over a ground push prompted the United Nations to warn this month of a potential “civilian bloodbath”, saying that that an offensive could uproot some 700,000 Syrians – far more than the number of those displaced in previous assaults.
The situation could be particularly hard for those who refuse to stay in government-controlled areas.
While the previous operations ended with negotiated transfers of fighters and their families to the north, an Idlib offensive will leave residents with an ultimatum; either to cross over to Turkey, if Ankara allows this, or to remain living under Assad’s direct influence once again.
“Any offensive in the northwestern areas, which are packed with displaced people, is likely to be very traumatic for civilians,” Lund said.
“The fact that the rebels have no exit and that so many of them are hardline Islamists who would likely fight to the end, will make it worse,” he added.
Shelling the densely-populated province packed with civilian zones and displacement camps will most likely be catastrophic, experts warn.
“It’ll turn into a massacre,” said Kouch.
Scenario B: Turkey preventing a large-scale attack
Already hosting more than three million Syrian refugees, Turkey has since last year sealed off its border with Syria, allowing only for the flow of humanitarian goods.
Meanwhile, its troops are now based in Idlib’s border areas, as well as in Syria’s Afrin and al-Bab following military operations against Kurdish fighters in Syria’s north.
Turkey has been trying to spare an assault on Idlib, primarily by utilising pledges made via the Astana diplomatic track to maintain a lasting ceasefire – and it may be successful in doing so.
“The Turks are trying to build influence, raise pressure, and offer enticements to ultimately defang and divide Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), so they can control the politics of Idlib,” Lund explained.
“Just like they control Afrin and the al-Bab region,” he said.
Idlib offensive: Russia and Turkey stall fighting
Turkey says its primary reason for backing FSA fighters in Syria is to combat the presence of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units – or YPG – in the northeast. Ankara perceives the YPG as part of the banned Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long bloody armed campaign against the Turkish state in southeastern parts of the country.
Ankara also maintains its presence in Idlib in an effort to prevent ground attacks amid hopes to move tens of thousands of Syrian refugees it hosts back to their country.
In May, just as it was trying to determine the province’s fate through diplomatic talks and disarmament aimed at preventing a government assault, Turkey set up 12 observation posts along Idlib’s border areas.
Turkey’s presence in Syria’s north means Russia must engage in some level of diplomacy, Lund explained, since an assault would “not only be a military issue”.
“The Russian-Turkish [de-escalation] agreements could block Syrian government offensives in the northwest … But even if so, it’s no guarantee for calm and quiet,” he said.
“Even if he lacks Russian support for a full-scale offensive, Assad could still seek to take areas around the edges of the territory,” Lund added
Such smaller attacks could be launched to regain specific concessions from rebel groups like prisoner exchanges or border crossings, including the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border.
“Assad understands the limitations of his powers and is unlikely to launch a military offensive without a political understanding, brokered by Russia, involving Turkey and possibly the Kurds,” Firas Maksad, director of the US-based Arabia Foundation, told Al Jazeera.
Founded in 2015 and backed by the United States, the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) control territory east of the Euphrates River. They have managed to seize control of key northwestern parts of Syria, including areas that hold the bulk of the country’s oil and gas reserves.
Scenario C: Rebel infighting intensifying
Opposition fighters may form a united front in the face of Russian-backed government offensive, but they may also turn against each other – as it has happened before.
“Rebel factions could try things, there could be infighting, and the government may be able to attack certain areas even if a full re-conquest remains elusive,” Lund said.
While there might be a confrontation between HTS and the new coaltion, Lund said HTS members could also fight amongst each other, since some are “more willing” to work with Turkey than others.
“This infighting may not be one big battle, but could take the form of skirmishing and military pressure,” Lund said.
In recent weeks, a string of “assassinations” hit Idlib, in which HTS members were killed by their former affiliates. The attacks that came in the form of live artillery fire was the result of infighting, mainly between Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zinki – previously associated with HTS.
FSA-affiliated groups were also targeted, according to a UK-based war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
HTS, Idlib’s most dominant force, has previously been left out of ceasefire resolutions and de-escalation attempts, and in 2016 was rendered a “terrorist” group by Russia.
By splitting from al-Qaeda in July 2016, HTS sought to reinvent itself as a nationalist armed group movement, hoping to gain international recognition for its more “moderate” stance, according to Ahmed Abazeid, an Istanbul-based Syrian researcher.
“HTS managed to gain some economic power in Idlib,” Abazeid told Al Jazeera. “They may surprise everyone and turn on the National Liberation Front coalition,” he said.
Abazeid said HTS did not see the need in joining a coalition with smaller allies, despite Ankara’s attempts at fragmenting and integrating the group with the Turkey-aligned coalition.
Turkey’s objective would not be to wipe out HTS completely, but to subvert and divide them, eliminate its most “anti-Turkish elements” and finally incorporate parts of the group to the FSA, according to Lund.
The FSA, a loose entity of opposition rebel groups made up of Syrian army defectors and ordinary civilians, has been trying to bring down Assad and his government since the wake of the Syrian uprising in 2011.
Now on the brink of total defeat, the FSA has become even more fragmented following the Ghouta and Deraa offensives with an increase in defections.
Kouch believes the “de-escalation agreement” was a plan to push out FSA rebels from areas that were under their control.
He argues their dismantlement was part of a larger Russian-American deal, which became apparent when Washington decided to halt its financial and logistical support for rebels in the south when the government launched its assault against rebels in Deraa in June.
Scenario D: Opposition surrendering
Finally, in the case of a rebel surrender via a Russian-brokered deal, as in previous cases, it is likely that the opposition groups will agree to the terms imposed on them, said Maksad, of the Arabia Foundation.
Rebels who reject surrender deals will live exiled either in Turkey, or elsewhere, he said.
Opposition groups, particularly the coalition, may be forced into surrendering due to pressure from Turkey, who is keen on avoiding an assault, Abazeid predicts.
And in the case of HTS, only two plausible options remain in case of a full-scale assault, he argued.
“They will either join the coalition, and thus Turkey, or their former Jihadist allies [al-Qaeda],” added Abazeid, in part for failing to attain international recognition needed for political leverage.
Such surrenders, in whichever forms they may come, would make it increasingly difficult to implement a political solution to the long-running conflict, according to analysts.
Russia has plan for Syrian refugees, UN says return unsafe
“There won’t be a negotiated political transition in Syria,” Lund said.
“That was never realistic, and it seems less likely than ever now … There could still be various types of political agreements, but they’re unlikely to infringe on Assad’s hold on power,” he added.
Political reform, if ever implemented, would bring about superficial constitutional changes in a reality dominated by Assad, experts Al Jazeera spoke to said.
“There is no political transition, but a reconstitution of Assad rule with tacit international acceptance,” Maksad said.
Nonetheless, the main political opposition bloc remains optimistic about a political solution. They insist Assad’s removal is a prerequisite to peace – but admit that “real power” lies in the hands of Russia.
“Assad did not win the war … Assad is a tool used by Russia and the Iranians,” Yahya al-Aridi, spokesperson for the Syrian Negotiation Commission, told Al Jazeera.
He believes previous Russian-brokered deals between the government and rebel groups, which caused the forced displacement of civilians along with their fighters and their families, acted as “forms of submission” owing to Russia’s military authority in Syria.
Regardless of the scale of a potential government-led assault in Idlib, the residents are likely to pay the highest price.
More than half of the province’s residents are internally displaced, living in informal camps and lacking access to basic healthcare services, food and drinking, according to the UN.
Idlib’s native population have for several years relied on the services of HTS, who imposed taxes on water, electricity and transport, Amar al-Daqaq, who hails from southern Damascus, told Al Jazeera from Idlib.
The services are “expensive and inadequate”, al-Daqaq said. “People are tired from the destruction and the shelling and the forced evacuations,” he said.
“They’re mostly afraid of another assault. Some are preparing underground safe houses, but others have just given in.”