Credible reports centred on the collapse of Ahrar Al-Sham in north-west Syria point toward an important shift in the six-year Syrian rebellion. The group was widely regarded as the largest and most potent non-jihadi element of the Syrian rebellion. By definition, therefore, its collapse is a key indicator of jihadist domination in that part of Syria.
The term “jihadi” in this context refers to groups whose outlook is either internationalist or whose activities are not purely focused on changing the ruling system in Syria. Whilst Ahrar Al-Sham is widely regarded as a Salafist group, crucially it has no consistent or institutionalised links to international militant organisations. By contrast, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), which has displaced Ahrar Al-Sham in Idlib province, has strong ideological and organisational links to Al-Qaeda.
The jihadist ascendance in Idlib province and the eclipse of Ahrar Al-Sham coincides with the broader collapse of rebel groups in the south and around Damascus. Taken together, these developments spell the end of a credible armed opposition to the Syrian government.
More importantly, these developments are generating shifts at the geopolitical level. Whilst greater Russian and American cooperation in Syria has been underway for months and predates the collapse of Ahrar Al-Sham, the ascendance of jihadists in Idlib is likely to elicit tacit US approval of a Russian-led assault on the province. Turkey and Iran also appear to be moving toward some serious cooperation.
The coming assault on Idlib
Not surprisingly the takeover of Idlib province by HTS, formerly known as the Nusra Front, has touched off speculation about the increasing likelihood of a Russian-led assault on the province. After all, HTS (despite its denials) is linked organically to Al-Qaeda and as a consequence it is blacklisted as a terrorist group by much of the international community.
The collapse of Ahrar Al-Sham and allied groups decreases US sensitivity to a massive Russian-coordinated military assault on Idlib, similar to the operation to retake eastern Aleppo late last year. The fall of Idlib would have profound symbolic significance in so far as the province is the last major redoubt of anti-Assad forces.
Symbolism aside, the real shift has taken place already, as evidenced by the collapse of rebel groups across Syrian battlefields. In the south, notwithstanding a fresh rebel offensive in Suwayda province, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies are on the offensive and poised to retake the full extent of the border with Jordan.
Meanwhile, around Damascus a series of de-escalation zones has consolidated an earlier pattern of rebel collapse and retreat. However, in an apparent violation of Russian-sponsored deconfliction agreements, the Syrian army has again gone on the offensive in the areas to the east of Damascus with a view to retaking the Jobar district and the town of Ain Tarma. Once Jobar falls the SAA is expected to press home its advantage by moving on Eastern Ghouta. The fall of the latter will spell the definitive end of the rebellion in the Damascus region.
On the basis of the current trajectory, the SAA and its allies will be in a position to launch a major offensive against Idlib possibly as soon as the end of this year. Whilst the offensive against Idlib is likely to be the last major military engagement of the Syrian conflict (at least in terms of the conflict between the regime and non-Kurdish and non-Daesh rebels), it is also likely to prove to be one of its fiercest and costliest. To that end, the offensive will require clear Russian direction, and by extension a degree of US acquiescence.
As expected, the endgame of the Syrian conflict is intensifying international involvement, rebalancing rivalries and cooperation and even introducing new players to the landscape. For example, Egypt appears to be playing an active role in conflict resolution, as demonstrated by its alleged role in negotiating deconfliction agreements in Eastern Ghouta and the northern neighbourhoods of Homs.
More importantly, the new-found spirit of cooperation between Iran and Turkey is likely to shape the post-conflict landscape in Syria’s northern regions. Previously at odds over Syria, the visit of the chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, Major-General Mohammad Bagheri to Turkey is a clear sign of a significant shift in the two states’ approach to some aspects of the Syrian conflict. There is speculation that this visit was centred on devising a common strategy to contain the ambitions of Syrian Kurdish groups and, more broadly, Kurdish irredentism across the region. Of particular note is a potential quid pro quo agreement whereby Iran persuades its ally in Damascus to move against US-aligned YPG rebels in the north, whilst Turkey applies pressure on Iraqi Kurds to hold off on an independence referendum.
Conflict between the SAA and the YPG is a distinct possibility once Daesh is defeated in eastern Syria. The potential for conflict is increased by the fact that there are two largely separate offensives against Daesh-held territory in the east, one spearheaded by the YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces in Raqqa and a larger operation in Deir az-Zor province led by the SAA and its allies.
Once Idlib is retaken from HTS, the focus of the Syrian conflict is likely to shift onto the future of the YPG and the sizeable territory under its control. It will take the combined diplomatic weight and skills of Turkey, Iran, the US and Russia to contain the centrifugal dynamics flowing from an SAA-YPG conflict.