Idlib Province and the Future of Instability in Syria
While some claim that an end to the conflict in Idlib marks the final stage of the Syrian war, there are three major factors that will shape the future of instability in Syria:
- An estimated 70,000 opposition militants with legitimate grievances against the Assad regime are positioned for a low-level insurgency that could last for years to come. Moreover, an estimated 12 million displaced Syrians offer a potential pool of recruits for this insurgency.
- Humanitarian and economic costs totaling an estimated $200-350 billion will require serious outside investment. A failure to address these conditions will almost certainly result in continued instability and a future relapse into civil war.
- The presence of outside and non-state military forces —including Russia, Turkey, Iran, the United States, Hezbollah, Syrian Kurds, and others—will continue to pose an obstacle to stability in Syria and exacerbate ethnic and sectarian tensions.
On September 18, 2018, Russia and Turkey announced an agreement to establish a demilitarized zone in Idlib province, delaying any immediate operations on the province that in recent months has seen Syrian military mobilization, Russian airstrikes, Turkish military reinforcement, and attempts to unite the Syrian opposition—including al Qaeda-linked factions—under a single banner. While the immediate offensive looks to be on hold, any discussion of Idlib province raises three sets of issues for Syria more broadly:
First, while some claim that the Idlib offensive marks the “final stage” of the Syrian war, it’s far from clear whether any offensive will take place, whether the Syrian opposition lay down their weapons, or whether Assad will allow them to be reintegrated into Syrian society. Some figures estimate that Idlib hosts up to 70,000 militants ranging from moderate opposition forces to radical elements with former and current links to al-Qaeda. With seven years of animosity pent up against the Assad regime and its allies, many of these militants may use the Turkish-Russian agreement to withdraw further and may try to wage a low-level insurgency with support and even sanctuary in Turkey. More radical elements, including Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), have expressed the willingness to defend Idlib until the end, but in the case of a major regime offensive, are equally likely to move underground just as Islamic State militants have done throughout Iraq and Syria, raising questions for the next iteration of both the Syrian opposition and the Salafi-jihadist movement in Syria.
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