Retired US officer: The Russians have squeezed insurgents in Idlib for this purpose…
As the Syrian Army consolidates its gains following its success in retaking the city of Aleppo, it is slowly turning its attention to Idlib Governorate, the next major stronghold of the various opposition groups.
It appears now the Syrian military is finally focusing its main effort in Idlib Governorate. This makes sense – the Syrian regime can seek to reduce the opposition-held areas on the Homs-Aleppo axis while maintaining its positions to the east. Although ISIS controls a large area of Syria – about one-third of the country – the organization is steadily losing ground to the SDF. The SDF has isolated the city of al-Tabaqah, home to Syria’s largest dam and an airbase – part of the larger strategy to encircle and then attack al-Raqqah.
Idlib Governorate is becoming the primary location for the various groups that comprise the Syrian opposition. This includes, among others, the FSA and other non-Islamist groups. There is also a major presence of several Islamist groups, notably the former al-Qa’idah affiliate known as the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). HTS was formed by a merger of several Islamist groups and has emerged as the key opposition group after the FSA. Two other Islamist groups, Jaysh al-Sham and Ahrar al-Sham, are also involved in the fighting in Idlib.
In the fight in Idlib Governorate, we have seen a significant increase in both the quantity and lethality of air strikes, especially by the Russian Air Force. Fully 75 percent of all sorties flown in Syria on behalf of the regime are being flown by the Russians. Syrian Air Force sorties have decreased following the American missile strike on al-Sha’yrat air base, in which over 20 aircraft (SU-22 and MiG-23 fighter-bombers) were destroyed. Those losses represent about 20 percent of the Syrian Air Force’s operational fighter inventory.
Accurate numbers are hard to determine, but the two sides are probably close when it comes to personnel. However, the Syrian Army is supported by large amounts of Russian airpower, as well as Iranian and Hizballah forces on the ground. Since the fall of Aleppo, the regime has held the upper hand on the battlefield, slowly reducing pockets of opposition resistance. The army will continue to mount attacks on rebels in the Idlib pocket until they have them surrounded and cut off.
At that point, there may be an opportunity for a negotiated solution. We have seen a willingness on the part of both sides to reach agreements whereby the government forces assume control of an area in return for free passage of opposition fighters. The opposition fighters, with a few exceptions, are transported to locations in Idlib Governorate. That only works until there is no place left to go.