Possible Strategies and Outcomes in a Potential Invasion of the NW Syria Opposition Pocket by the Assad Regime and its Allies

Lead Author: Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff
Co Authors: Bassam Barabandi and Nidal Betare

With a potential invasion of the Syrian Opposition’s last major stronghold in NW Syria, it is a good time to review the Assad Regime and Iran’s potential options for a ground game, should Russia and Turkey be unable to agree on the NW Syria Pocket’s future and dissuade both the Assad Regime and Iran from embarking on a costly ground campaign that could possibly result in the physical engagement of the Turkish military and a massive humanitarian disaster involving up to 3 million people. Again, a ground campaign without Russian air power would be costly, and previous battles between the Assad Regime’s past performance against opposition forces without airpower has been less than stellar. Depending on whether Russia and Turkey have a deal regarding the future of the NW Syria pocket, any sort of fight in the NW pocket could be a long, drawn out battle, or a quick route of opposition forces and a resultant mass exodus of civilians towards the Turkish border and into Turkish controlled Northern Aleppo Province. The NW pocket has been under Turkish protection since the agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran established four “de-escalation zones” starting in the fall of 2017. Of these four zones, only the NW Syria pocket remains, and it does so in part because of the specific sets of agreements that the three countries plotted out, including the physical deployment of military observation posts and Turkish military units into the opposition held NW pocket one side, and Russian and Iranian military observation posts just on the other side in Assad Regime held territory. The physical presence of Turkish troops within NW Syria is the only reason a direct ground assault on the area by the Assad Regime has yet to occur, although it has not prevented Russian and Regime air power from continuing to conduct airstrikes on the area. The Assad Regime and Iran may not care about Turkish collateral damage, but at least for the moment, Russia does. Given the current political climate which has seen Turkey and the United States’ relationship at one of the lowest points in decades, it seems fair to assume Russia would prefer to continue exploiting the gaps between Turkish and US foreign policy interests in Syria and push Turkey closer to Russia, and thus continuing its monopoly as the main power broker in Syria, while simultaneously weakening the NATO alliance.

Analysis of the Russian Position on a NW Pocket Campaign: Russia’s main problem set when it comes to its overall strategy in Syria -and especially in regards to what happens to the NW Syria pocket are the following: 1) Assad is not a reliable ally, and often attempts to play Iran and Russia off one another in pursuit of his own specifics interests within the Syrian conflict, including conducting military campaigns that Russia does not necessarily condone or see as useful to its overall interests or long-term strategy within the region; 2) Iran and Russia are strategic partners for the purpose of propping up Assad, but they are not friends, and in the long-term will clash over who will nominally control the Syrian state apparatus; 3) Russia’s biggest victory thus far in engaging in the Syrian conflict has been to push Turkey and the United States farther apart, and create a wedge within NATO, but the gains Russia has made with Turkey may wither if the Assad Regime and Iran move forward with an unsanctioned campaign to take the NW Syria pocket -which at least for the moment- Turkey sees as strategically valuable to hold; 4) If Assad and Iran move forward with a campaign without Russia and they are successful in taking the NW Syria pocket, Russia will no longer be seen as kingmaker in Syria; rather Iran will be seen as having the upper hand, and the long-term favorite for controlling the Syrian state apparatus. This possibility may force Russia to engage in a costly campaign that they did not intend to devote resources towards, and could result in losing precious leverage with Turkey.

There is also the long-term cost of taking control of the NW Syria pocket: 1) the Assad Regime would be responsible for social services for millions more people than his regime currently is responsible for and the UN cannot bankroll social service relief for the Regime indefinitely; 2) Currently HTS and Hurass-eddine (two local AQ affiliates) and their adherents are bottled up in one corner of the country and breaking up the NW pocket may have the unintended consequence of allowing such groups to disappear into the interior of Syria and reconstitute themselves in another form, fomenting -along with ISIS- a low level insurgency which never really goes away, and continues to create instability in Syria and across the Middle East and Europe; 3) a campaign into the NW pocket could result in such a high civilian casualties in such a short period of time, that it could provoke an international military response at a time when everyone is already on high alert in anticipation of the Assad Regime potentially conducting another chemical weapons attack against the opposition.

Potential military campaigns to take back the NW opposition pocket: While there are a number of possibilities, a gradual approach which sees the Assad Regime and Iranian-backed forces take the peripheries of the pocket first before delving directly into Idlib Province makes the most sense (see map below). Geography favours the opposition in a number of regions -such as around the Lattakia-Idlib border and Qalaat Al-Madiq- but the lack of a cohesive fighting force capable of deploying and adequately defending all the potential access points into the pocket, may mitigate any slight advantage the geography of the region may provide. Given that the Assad Regime and its allies have defeated almost all other opposition and/or extremist forces within the country (with the exception of the Turkish backed opposition held territory and the American-backed SDF held territory), the Regime can muster the full force of its military assets to bring to bear on the NW pocket. Likely, an attack on the region would occur from three different points simultaneously. It would be a complex and costly campaign, but the Regime and Iran have had time to plan and pre-position their forces to maximum effect. A first strike would likely come in Hama Province, where opposition defenses are weak, and the terrain does not provide any significant advantages to opposition defense.

While this fight pulled opposition forces to defend Hama province -and by default the access point to Southern Idlib- pro-Iranian militias who have had a healthy amount of experience fighting in the mountainous regions of Lattakia, would probably be deployed to begin the arduous task of flushing out the opposition and TIP from its defensive positions to open the road to Bdama town and ultimately to the much larger Jisr Al-Shaghour township. This campaign in Lattakia would be made easier if Russian air cover is provided. If Russia does not participate in this campaign, the fight for Lattakia could take more time and manpower than anticipated. Finally, a third attack would come from Handerat and Aleppo City areas against the adjacent opposition held countryside, with the focus of taking Anadan,  Kafr Hamra, Hiyan and Bayanoun, down to Babis. From there, this force could push forward on multiple fronts to take territory slowly and make their way towards Al-Atarib City. Given the level of complexity, I expect this to be a four or five stage campaign, which squeezes the pocket from the outside in, leaving space for civilians to run to Turkish held territory in Northern Aleppo Province and creating a chaotic environment in which the a fractured opposition will have to cope and navigate while trying to defend its territory. At the same time, the central portions of Idlib and Idlib city will be the most difficult portions of the pocket to take and will be left for last, once all other areas have been taken and potentially large sections of the Syria-Turkish border have been secured.

This entire scenario depends though several important factors: 1) what kind of relationship Russia wants with Turkey now and in the future and is that relationship worth more to Russia than its relationship with the Assad Regime; 2) how important is the NW pocket -or at least Idlib province- to Turkey and its long-term plans for the areas of Syria it now controls; 3) Would the Assad Regime and Iran be willing to go it alone into a costly campaign without Russian air support; 4) how much is Russia, Iran or the Regime willing to risk potentially getting into a military confrontation with Turkey, should they hit an observation post in the course of attempting to take the pocket before a potential Turkish withdrawal can occur. Furthermore, is the international community willing to stand by (as it has done for 7 years) and watch close to 3 million people be put in immediate danger without anywhere to run to? The loss of civilian life during a campaign of this magnitude would be catastrophic and could result in thousands of deaths in a matter of days or weeks.

Background to the Analysis Provided Above:

For the purposes of this review, I am going to assume that the Assad Regime and Iran go it alone in a ground campaign with limited air support, and are willing to risk limited engagement with Turkish military forces present in the opposition pocket in order to achieve specific military objectives on the ground which would either severely limit or dissolve this final Syrian opposition pocket. Before I review the potential options, lets go over the NW Syria opposition pocket’s geography and the placement of the various military observation posts, and how they could complicate any specific ground offensive.

The Geography:

the NW Syrian opposition pocket, which consists of a sliver of NW Lattakia Province, 80% of Idlib Province, Al-Atarib District and the adjoining Jabal Seman district which stretches to the edge of Aleppo City, and a section of Hama Province including a portion of Sahl Al-Ghab district and around 20 small to medium size villages and towns along Idlib Province’s most directly southern border with Hama Province. The NW Syria pocket has expanded and contracted in size over the years, with Idlib Province being one of the first pieces of contiguous territory to be held by the Syrian opposition, starting in the summer of 2012. At its height in the Fall of 2015 -just before the Russian military intervention- the NW Syrian pocket encompassed a sizable foothold in Northeast Lattakia Province, the entirety of Idlib Province, a much larger portion of Northern and Northeastern Hama Province, and a large portion of Western Aleppo Province, including the eastern side of Aleppo City. The geography of this region is complex and nuanced, ranging from flat agrarian lands, to rolling hills, mountains and valleys which had minimal population density before the war, to sizable towns and cities (by Syrian standards) such as Idlib City, and the towns of Saraquib, Maarat Al-Numan and Al-Atarib. The geography of this region has also shaped the way in which the Syrian conflict unfolded, and the kinds of micro-conflicts and armed opposition movements which rose up and established themselves during the initial stages of the Syrian Revolution. History, economics, and the way in which the Syrian State had previously dealt with this region before the conflict, all laid the groundwork for what was to come in 2011. Having a sizable border with Turkey, which was immediately sympathetic and supportive of the opposition movement against the Assad Regime, also shaped and continues to shape the unfolding of the Syrian Conflict within this specific geographic region.

Turkish Military Observation Posts:

After agreeing in the fall of 2017 to the “de-escalation zones” Turkey set about standing up 12 military observation posts in a ring around opposition held territory in the NW Syria pocket, which it deemed to be protected. These military posts were set up between October 2017 and May 2018. These posts were set up after what seemed to be an “organized shrinking” of opposition held space within the NW Syrian pocket to the current dimensions that the NW pocket is today. Starting in December 2017, the Assad Regime and Iranian ground forces along with Russian airpower initiated a military campaign to take all opposition held territory east of the railway line running from Hama City to Aleppo City, and taking an additional 2-6 miles of buffer to the west of the railway line. During this campaign, the main armed opposition units stationed in opposition held eastern Hama Province, Southeastern Idlib Province and Southwestern Aleppo Province, were Ahrar Al-Sham, some local FSA units and HTS also had a large presence. At the immediate outset of the campaign by the Regime to take these above mentioned areas, HTS withdrew its forces and largely left this territory undefended. Ahrar Al-Sham and some other armed opposition units who used to be supported nominally by the United States and Turkey attempted to unite and defend the area, but they were vastly outgunned on the ground and Russian airpower made it difficult to defend such a large area. While there is no evidence that Turkey and HTS made an agreement about ceding this area to the Regime in order to implement the tenants of the Astana agreement, the withdrawal of HTS units to areas to the west of the Hama-Aleppo railway line coincided perfectly with setting up the geographic contours of what Turkey considered to be opposition held territory in the NW pocket which it was willing to defend and set up military observation posts for enforcement.

Currently, Turkey has 12 observation posts which are stationed strategically throughout the NW Syria pocket in a way that any efficient and/or strategic routes the Assad Regime and its allies would take, in order to enter the pocket, would have to pass within sight of a Turkish observation post. Let’s now take a look at each observation post and understand what said observation post can see, and what it’s main purpose -strategically speaking- is at this juncture. I will endeavor to review each observation post in roughly the order it was set up in.

1. Salwa Observation Post (October 2017): This was the first post set up by the Turkish military, and although ostensibly set up in order to enforce the de-escalation zone tripartite agreement between Turkey, Russia and Iran, this and the second and third observation points were positioned on hilltops overlooking Afrin District in neighboring Aleppo Province, with the purpose of monitoring the movements of the YPG/SDF forces who controlled Afrin district at the time. Operation Olive Branch would commence on January 20th, 2018 in which the Turkish military along with Syrian opposition allies would fight and ultimately take control of Afrin District. This observation post is immediately to the north of the village of Salwa which overlooked the main road separating Idlib Province from Afrin District, and would be one of the main entry points into Afrin District which leads to one of the major towns of Afrin District called Janderis.

2. Jabal Semaan Observation Post (October 2017): Set up shortly after Salwa observation post, it was also designed to monitor the frontlines between opposition held portions of Idlib and Aleppo Provinces and YPG/SDF held portions of Aleppo Province. This observation post was established just north of Daraat Ezzah, which is a major opposition held municipality in western Aleppo Province, housing many IDPs both from the NW Syria pocket and those from other portions of Syria who forcibly displaced by the Assad Regime.

3. Jabal Aqil Observation Post (November 2017): This observation post was placed just north of the town of Qabtan Jabal, a major stronghold for the opposition force Noureddine Zenki, which eventually joined Ahrar Al-Sham in an alliance called the Syrian Liberation Front (SLF), whose purpose is to fight Hayaat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) – the latest incarnation of Jabhat Al-Nusra. The SLF alliance supposedly (unconfirmed) has the support of the Turkish Government. The fight between Zenki and HTS began in November 2017 shortly after the third observation post was established by Turkey.

4. Al-Eis Observation Post (February 2018): The next three observation posts were established by the Turkish military after the SARG forces with support from Russian air cover and pro-Iranian militias, conducted a campaign from December 2017 to the end of January 2018 to take control of all opposition held land in Hama, Aleppo and Idlib province east of the Hama City-Aleppo City railway line, and also taking control strategic points a 2-6 km west of the railway line, establishing the hard demarcation line between the opposition held NW pocket and Assad Regime held territory in the North. This campaign established the current contours of opposition held NW pocket as it currently exists today. This observation point overlooks a possible avenue for the Assad Regime to use in order to strike northwest towards the city of Al-Atarib – a major opposition held stronghold and IDP center- and oversees a particularly vulnerable section of the opposition held portion of the M-5 highway, as there are only smaller municipalities nearby, and the land in this area is mostly flat, rural and used for agriculture (with the exception of the hill that the observation post is located on).

5. Surman Observation Post (February 2018): This observation post was established on a main road which leads from Regime held territory straight to the city of Maarat Al-Numan -a opposition held stronghold which had a very active role in the protest movement against the Assad Regime and has an active civil society presence- and the M-5 highway which runs through the city. Along the route from Regime held territory to Maarat Al-Numan, are the towns of Abu Makki, Jarjanaz, Talmines and Marshamsheh, all of whom have large IDP populations, Maarat Al-Numan itself included.

6. Tal Tuqan Observation Post (February 2018): This observation post was established on the main road which leads from Regime held territory straight to the city of Saraquib -another opposition stronghold which was at the forefront of the protest movement in 2011 against the Assad Regime- and sits on the M-5 highway, and has a number of other major arteries running through the city which either takes one to the provincial capital of Idlib City to the northwest or further south towards the city of Maarat Al-Numan and past it to Khan Sheikhoun. During the campaign to take the railway “deconfliction” line, Regime forces attempted to push their luck and edge closer towards Saraquib, but opposition defenses of the area were bolstered with outside assistance, and the Regime’s advance stopped at the town of Tal Sultan.

7. Jabal Anak Observation Post (March 2018): This observation post was established just outside the opposition held town of Anadan, which borders western sections of Aleppo City, and overlooks a confluence of military actors in the area, including the last remaining strip of YPG/SDF held territory in the Tal Rifaat pocket, stretching south almost to Anadan and terminating in the village of Bashmareh on the one hand; and overlooking the towns of Zahra and Nubl, two Shi’a majority towns which are hardline supporters of the Assad Regime and had Hezbollah and Pro-Iranian militias establish bases within the municipalities early on in the conflict. During operation Olive Branch, militias in Zahra and Nubl allied themselves with the YPG/SDF forces attempting to defend Afrin District, and gave safe passage for many of Afrin’s residents to flee the district. Any attempt to take opposition held western Aleppo Province could see a military campaign emanate from this general region, perhaps with both YPG/SDF forces, pro-Iranian militias and the Regime’s forces coordinating a military campaign in two phases (see map below), first to take the Anadan-Kafr Hamra pocket just north of Aleppo City, and then second, to take the road and municipalities which would ultimately take the Regime to the city Al-Atarib.

8. Morek Observation Post (April 2018): This observation post was established in order to monitor the frontlines between the Regime and the opposition in Northern Hama Province, just south of the town of Morek, and is overseeing the road which leads directly to the major municipality of Khan Sheikhoun, which has been a target of consistent airstrikes by the Russian Airforce and the Assad Regime, including the use of sarin and chlorine gas. Taking Morek and then Khan Sheikhoun would be the most direct way of entering Southern Idlib, taking control of further portions of the M-5 highway, and allowing a quick arrival to the city of Maarat Al-Numan. It is likely any campaign to retake the Northern Hama opposition pocket – a precursor to any full scale invasion of Idlib Province- would emanate from around Morek, where both Russian and Iranian observation and military posts are nearby (see map below).

9. Rashidin Observation Post (May 2018): This observation post was established in Rashidin district, which directly abuts Aleppo City and has been the site of heavy fighting and has become a frontline multiple times throughout the conflict. This observation post also oversees a major road which leads to the town of Urem Al-Kubra and continues on to the city of Al-Atarib, and could be another potential route the Assad Regime may want to use to retake opposition held Western Aleppo Province. This area along the road has more urban density and is an area that opposition forces know well and have been entrenched in for years.

10. Jabal Turkmen Observation Post (May 2018): This observation post was established in Jabal Turkmen region of opposition held Lattakia Province and could act like an advance warning system, as it oversees a very mountainous area that the Assad Regime would need to retake as a precursor to entering western Idlib Province. Taking this area would inevitably lead to potential fighting between Assad Regime forces and allied pro-Iranian militias against hardline Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) who hold a number of strategic hilltops in the area, but this battle would be necessary to bring the Regime within striking distance of the town of Jisr al-Shaghour, which it lost in the summer of 2015 around the same time that they lost control of Idlib City (see map).

11. Maidan Ghazal Observation Post (May 2018): This observation post was established to overlook the town of Qalaat Al-Madiq, which aside from being the main crossing point between opposition and regime held territory when populations and prisoners have been exchanged over the years, is the entry point to two areas of Idlib Province that are difficult to control due to geography and poor infrastructure: Jabal Shashbaho and Jabal Zawiyeh regions. Both areas fell out of Regime control early on in the conflict and Jabal Zawiyeh was another epicenter for both peaceful and armed resistance against the Assad Regime in 2011-2012 period. Furthermore, taking of Qalaat Madiq would be part of a broader campaign to take the other opposition held section of Hama Province known as Sahl Al-Ghab plain, which stretches almost all the way north to the Turkish border. Taking Sahl Al-Ghab plain is not really doable without retaking Jabal Shashbaho and Jabal Zawiyeh regions which are mountainous and overlook Sahl Al-Ghab and provide the opposition with a strategic military advantage.

12. Jabal Ishtrabaq Observation Post (May 2018): This was the final observation post to be established and overlooks the strategic town of Jisr Al-Shaghour, and the road leading to the town from Regime held territory in neighboring Lattakia province. Any advance further into Idlib Province from the west would have to go through Jisr Al-Shaghour town, and would be part of any campaign by the Regime to recapture the Turkish-Syrian border just north of the town.

Overall, the Turkish observation posts have served numerous purposes, whether they be to monitor the SDF/YPG forces in advance of their operation to take Afrin District, or to stake out a defensive position to guard the NW Syria opposition pocket from further Regime incursion. The question is whether the Turkish Government is prepared to defend these observation posts should the Assad Regime attempt a military incursion into the pocket, or will they simply withdraw their forces. Some observation posts seem designed more as early warning systems, such as the posts in Jabal Turkmen region of Lattakia, Morek post in Hama Province and Anak post near Anadan in Aleppo Province, and do not seem defensible should the Regime attempt an attack in these areas -with or without Russian airpower. On the other hand, the observation posts are placed in as obstructionist a manner as possible, and could give Russia pause regarding whether it is worth the risk to accidently hit and kill Turkish troops in a bid to take back this Syria opposition pocket. The Assad Regime and its Iranian allies could elect to embark on a military campaign without Russian airpower, but such a campaign would prove costly in terms of manpower and material and they would be fighting against battle hardened opposition forces who literally have nothing left to lose and have nowhere to run except perhaps further into Turkish controlled territory in Aleppo Province; but there is no guarantee that Turkey would allow such an influx of people and armed personnel into their area of control, given the ideological proclivities of many of the forces operating in Idlib province.

Russian Military Observation Posts: Russian military observation posts were established largely to mirror their Turkish military counterparts in accordance with the tripartite agreement in Astana. However, a number of these observation posts have been placed in significant military installations, such as Abu Dhuhur airport and the air defense base just at the outskirts of western Aleppo City, or seem to be placed in competition with neighboring Iranian observation posts, which have also been positioned in a number of military installations. While Russian observation posts do serve a purpose of at least creating the façade that the de-escalation zone of the NW Syria pocket is will be observed, the posts have other long-term political and military goals: 1) positioning Russian forces in communities that could potentially lend long-term leverage for Russia over the Assad regime, such as its observation posts near Al-Suqaylabiyah and Mahardah, both majority Christian towns, or its post in Sahl Al-Ghab plain which was traditionally a mixed region between Alawites and Sunnis, and borders Lattakia Province, the original heartland of the Assad Family. Other observation posts lay along major routes which the Assad Regime would need to use in order to conduct an orderly assault on the opposition pocket, and one could surmise that Russia prefers to keep an eye on these roads, in case the Assad Regime (perhaps nudged by its Iranian ally) decides to attempt an attack on the pocket without consulting Russia first, and forcing Russia’s hand regarding a costly campaign into Idlib, which could potentially put Russia at odds with Turkey, a NATO ally it is currently attempting to woo, while the Turkish relationship with both the United State and Western Europe continues to suffer. All in all, the observation posts have been placed in such a manner as to serve multiple purposes and functions, including living up to its agreement with Turkey, keeping an eye on its wayward ally and patron the Assad Regime, and attempting to maintain some control over the tempo of the battle space by preventing it’s “frenemy” Iran from pushing Assad to “go it alone” in Idlib without consulting Russia first.

Iranian Military Observation Posts: Iranian observation posts, in contrast to Russian ones, seem to have been placed entirely to satisfy it’s regional and military interests within Syria. The largest cluster of observation posts are around Aleppo City and seem to focus on monopolizing either military installations or further strengthening locations where Iranian forces and pro-Iranian militias had operated for some time, such as in Handerat, Zahra/Nubl, Al-Hadher/Al-Eis frontlines and in Western Aleppo City. Some observation posts – like the Russians- are about long-term political strategy and seek to curry favour with specific communities within Regime held territory, or by asserting dominance in a specific geographic regions in order to leverage the Assad Regime later on. Otherwise, Iran’s observation posts are placed in such a way as that they can be activated to support and participate in any potential campaign strategy designed to retake the NW opposition pocket.