The Syrian Arab Army's successful liberation operation in the southwestern corner of the country has imbued the military with the confidence to declare that Idlib might be next, though any move on this region might trigger an instant crisis in Russian-Turkish ties. Damascus just defeated a motley crew of Daesh and various rebels in a matter of weeks, but doing the same elsewhere in the county might not be as easy of a walk in the park. Unlike the armed groups near Daraa and the occupied Golan Heights, the ones in Idlib are battle-hardened by years of experience on the front lines, and many of the militants there were actually bused in from other parts of Syria as part of truce agreements. Moreover, the Turkish military is officially operating in the area as part of its responsibilities in this so-called "de-escalation zone".
These were set up in certain sectors of Syria after Russia's suggestion in May 2017 and in coordination with its Turkish and Iranian Astana partners, but Ankara's presence in Idlib has always been uncomfortable for Damascus despite the latter's implicit acceptance of this arrangement. Syrian sensitivities to this state of affairs skyrocketed following Turkey's "Operation Olive Branch" in adjacent Afrin earlier this year, which seemingly confirmed some of Damascus' worst fears that Ankara might be trying to de-facto annex parts of the Arab Republic. For its part, Turkey always denied that this was the case and insisted that it only deployed its conventional military forces into its southern neighbor's territory in order to fight terrorism, be it in Afrin or Idlib, though Syria still suspects that it wants to create proxy states there, or at the very least, buffer zones.
Any upcoming offensive by the Syrian Arab Army in Idlib could therefore provoke a military response by the Turkish Armed Forces that triggers a secondary crisis in Russian-Turkish ties, though Moscow might be able to mediate a face-saving "compromise" for both sides if it can get each of them to enter into mutually acceptable "concessions" such as the withdrawal of the Turkish military in exchange for constitutional guarantees of Idlib's "decentralization", for instance. If something of the sort doesn't work out, however, then Syria might be walking into a trap by moving on Idlib because of the high risk that this could inadvertently undermine Russia's meticulously constructed regional "balancing" strategy of recent years and ruin its historically best-ever relations with former Great Power rival Turkey.
Andrew Korybko is joined by Steven Sahiounie, Syrian-American journalist, and Adam Garrie, Director of Eurasia Future.
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