The last southern battle in Syria: finish off ISIS and then on, towards Idlib

by Elijah J Magnier

Southern Syria is surrendering to the forces of the Syrian army: deals have been concluded between the Syrian government and the militants, including jihadists belonging to Jabhat al-Nusra (aka Hayat Tahrir al-Sham). The main deal, supervised by the Russian forces, allows whoever is willing to go to the northern city of Idlib, which is becoming the largest gathering of jihadists, to join the caravan and board the green buses, carrying their personal light weapons.

The Syrian army is facing a real logistic challenge, its forces did not expect the fall of the southern front so quickly. Therefore, the military command is asking militants and jihadists to stay in their villages until their turn comes to be evacuated or to be reconciled with the authorities.

The aim is also to prevent ISIS, occupying the enclave in al-Yarmouk Basin, from expanding its control over nearby abandoned villages where jihadists were based and are today unwilling to fight.

The only pocket remaining is the one of “Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed”, ISIS-Huran, where the Syrian army and its allies have initiated an attack after surrounding the area from all sides, with the exception of the west flank bordering the 1974 line with Israel.

Although there is no time allocated to end the ISIS pocket, military commanders believe it might take less than two months to end ISIS’s control completely. That is also linked to the following battle expected in the north of Syria after the month of September, where preparations are ongoing for the biggest, last battle in Syria.

Russia is already preparing for its share in rural Lattakia and the high ground surrounding Jisr al-Shoughour and the Lattakia province under the control of Jabhat al-Nusra. The reason why the Russians are determined to liberate the area is mainly due to repetitive armed drone attacks against its main military base and airport in Hmaymeem, also the centre of coordination with Moscow.

The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Russia that the Astana deal will be in jeopardy if ever the de-confliction zone in Idlib is attacked. Turkey, Russia and Iran deployed 12 observation points along the de-confliction zone in rural Idlib to prevent ground attacks from Jihadists.

However, sources close to the Syrian President said “Bashar al-Assad will not abide by any deal with Turkey or the US that allows these two countries to occupy Syrian territory, even if Russia signed the deal”.

Assad and his allies – Iran and Hezbollah – believe they are capable of liberating the city of Idlib since most of Syria is now liberated. Therefore, Assad insists on liberating the occupied north and has asked his allies to be prepared to send more forces for the next operational stage.

Sources on the ground said “Hezbollah will be present with large forces to participate in the elimination of al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters and jihadists based in the north of Syria”.

Russia and Damascus have agreed to open safe corridors for all civilians willing to leave Idlib into the secured area under the Syrian army control or to reconcile with the government of Damascus as was the case for tens of thousands of militants all over Syria. The number of inhabitants of the city of Idlib (and its rural area) is estimated to be around two million (1.5 before the war), including internally displaced refugees.

Russia wouldn’t mind seeing the Syrian army recover Idlib to protect eastern Aleppo and its rural area that is still under jihadist control. President Erdogan may show a lot of anger when the liberation of Idlib begins, due to his close ties with the militants and jihadists. However, all proxies have become a burden on their backers as the Syrian war is evolving.

Turkey would be happy to control the Kurdish area to prevent the Kurds from having their mini-state. The Kurds, the biggest losers in this war, have earned the animosity of both Erdogan and Assad due to their implicit approval of the partition of Syria and for allowing the US to use them as shield in north-east Syria.

The US forces occupy al-Hasaka and part of Deir-ezzour province. They have established military bases and airports and allowed Israel, according to sources in the area, to use the US military facilities to attack Syria and Iraq (Hashd al-Shaabi).

The battle of Idlib is not going to be a walkover since it is the last significant battle in Syria. Al-Qaeda and other jihadists and the thousands of foreign fighters are not expected to surrender. Russia vows to eliminate al-Qaeda unless Turkey finishes these off. It is most unlikely that President Erdogan will start a war against al-Qaeda, he who has supported them for years and allowed the jihadists to occupy Idlib years back. Nevertheless, it is a time for ending the war in Syria, and Turkey is no longer willing to keep these jihadists under its wing.

It is the last battle this year. The Syrian army shall not attack the US occupation forces face to face but will support local resistance if ever these forces don’t pull out. Once the battle of Idlib is over, Syria can begin “the mother and father of all battles”, reconciliation and reconstruction. The world has failed to change the Syrian regime and the US’s plan for a new Middle East is over. There is no meaning for any occupation forces to remain in the Levant and it is time for Syrians to lick their wounds- and start all over again.

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