Despite the Syrian regime escalating tensions across Idlib and Daraa, experts do not expect a large-scale operation against opposition forces.
The Bashar al Assad regime and Russian forces have escalated tensions across Syria by attacking Idlib, the country’s last opposition stronghold, and also Daraa, a city famous for being the birthplace of the 2011 uprising.
While the regime refuses to comply with a critical ceasefire brokered by Moscow and Ankara in 2020 to end a bloody land campaign by Assad’s forces on Idlib in late 2019, sources from the region do not expect a large-scale operation against the northwestern city.
“The Assad regime constantly violates the ceasefire. Right now, it targets the Idlib region, attacking opposition forces in order to provoke them to return fire to regime forces. But we do not expect a large-scale land operation against Idlib in the short term,” says Burak Karacaoglu, Idlib correspondent for Anadolu Agency (AA). Regime sources also do not expect such an attack, he says.
A large-scale land operation carries a lot of risks for Damascus because Turkey has a significant military presence in northwestern Syria, according to Karacaoglu. “Thousands of Turkish military forces are located in opposition-held areas in Idlib,” Karacaoglu tells TRT World.
By escalating tensions, the regime wants to gauge reaction from Turkey and the US, Karacaoglu says. Also, it wants to see how much support it might get from both Russia and Iran, the Syrian regime’s two backers, for a large-scale operation, he adds.
“The regime and its allies want to show the world that they can do a possible maneuver at any moment. By constantly keeping tensions high, they also want to give an impression that the region is under their psychological control,” says Bulent Aras, professor of international relations at Qatar University.
In addition to these objectives, the regime clearly aims to create a security nightmare for civilians living in Idlib, seeking a moment of desperation when they can give up their resistance against Damascus, according to both Aras and Karacaoglu. More than four million people, who refuse to live under the Assad regime, live across the Idlib province.
“They want to send a message to Turkey that if Ankara allies with anti-Russia forces in Syria, they will escalate tensions to trigger another wave of refugees to Turkey, which is the only exit for Idlib’s civilians,” Aras tells TRT World.
While the regime and its allies calculate that they can benefit from increasing violence in the region, “Idlib is a difficult geography”, Aras notes, “we don’t know how a large-scale operation will end up there. It’s very difficult to establish territorial dominance over there. No single force is able to do that yet.”
But the professor also draws attention to another escalation in the Daraa province as a possible indicator of the regime’s thinking of a large-scale operation. “In Idlib, with recent escalations, they might put an experiment in play for the preparation of their ultimate attack on the enclave.”
Despite increasing its territorial control, the regime is not able to control more than 60 percent of Syria.
The regime has also long wanted to control the M-4 highway, which connects a crucial trade route from Latakia, a Mediterranean port city, to Aleppo, the second largest city in Syria. Recent attacks also targeted areas close to the M-4.
“The M-4 is under the opposition control and Turkish forces are located south of the highway. While the regime aims to control the highway, it’s not possible at the moment,” says Karacaoglu.
“If the regime decides to launch a large-scale operation along with its allies, it will aim the M-4 highway and want to capture strategic areas of Jabal al-Zawiya and Jisr ash-Shugur,” Karacaoglu adds.
The only hotspot in Syria is not Idlib. Daraa, an ancient city, where Syria’s uprising against the Assad regime first began ten years ago, has also recently been the site of escalations between opposition forces and the regime, leading to deaths on both sides.
Since 2018, Daraa has been a divided province between the regime and opposition forces. Under a Russian-mediated deal, the regime controls the northern part of the province while opposition forces maintain a relative control over the southern part of Daraa. The capital city of the Daraa province is also called Daraa.
Omar Alhariri, a Daraa-based Syrian journalist, thinks that increasing tensions in the southwestern province are not directly linked to Idlib escalations. While Idlib escalations are more related to economic reasons like opening the M-4 highway, Daraa tensions are linked to developments following the Syrian presidential elections, according to Alhariri.
While Daraa al Balad, which is part of Daraa city, was left to opposition control according to the 2018 reconciliation deal, now it faces regime attacks, leading to escalations, Alhariri says.
“Everything started after the Syrian presidential elections in May. Thousands of people of Daraa protested the elections in areas around the Omar Mosque, which was also exactly the scene where the first protest of the Syrian revolution happened in 2011,” Alhariri tells TRT World.
On May 26, Bashar al Assad also showed up in the Daraa city to vote for himself in an election, which was widely considered to be rigged by the regime. He won 95 percent of votes in the country, half of whose population was displaced by regime forces.
“Protesters raised the flag of the Syrian Revolution and chanted slogans against the presidential election. Since then, everything has changed as the regime closed all roads one by one, putting the Daraa city under a siege,” Alhariri says.
Now the regime wants to make a new deal with opposition forces in Daraa, says Alhariri, allowing Damascus to control the whole Daraa. “The army wants to enter Daraa al Balad, demanding opposition groups to hand over all of their weapons to the regime,” Alhariri says.
“Obviously, the people of Daraa al Balad refused to accept that kind of a new deal. Then, in late July, the regime began shelling and attacking Daraa al Balad,” he says. The regime forces have conducted house searches, killing eight people since then, he adds.
“Armed forces were left with no choice but to defend their neighbourhoods. And that’s what happened,” Alhariri says, referring to recent escalations between the regime and opposition forces in Daraa al Balad and towns around Daraa al Balad.
“The regime forces want to make Daraa an example to every single area in Syria. Their message is ‘if you say no like Daraa, that’s what you would face. We will attack. We will shell and turn your life into hell’,” Alhariri says.
According to Karacaoglu, a new temporary ceasefire was agreed upon between Daraa community leaders and the regime.