Why Idlib Matters
The province of Idlib is in the northwestern part of Syria, near the Mediterranean Sea and the border with Turkey. Ordinarily, the world ought to have little interest in who controls it. But in geopolitics, sometimes the smallest and most obscure places generate the most concern among major powers – and Idlib is doing just that. The future of the province may itself not be a global issue, but it has become the site of a showdown among Russia, Turkey, Iran, the United States and Syria, with the Kurds thrown in for good measure, forcing them to reconsider who their allies and enemies are. This is a story of great power politics and thus the global balance of power. Idlib is just backdrop.
Right now, Idlib is controlled by forces hostile to the Syrian government. It’s increasingly clear that the government has all but won the civil war that has been raging since the Arab Spring. At the time, President Bashar Assad seemed destined to fall. Of course, he did not fall, his survival owed in part to the inability of his enemies to form a united front. They hated and distrusted Assad, but they equally hated and distrusted each other. This was the bedrock of the government’s power for nearly 50 years. Idlib is one of the last remaining rebel holdouts, a piece of territory standing in Assad’s path to victory. The forces arrayed there face nothing less than destruction.
This would pose a problem for Turkey, which supports some of the groups there now. Losing the province would open a route into Turkey that Syrian forces could exploit. To be clear, Assad’s retaking Idlib is not an existential threat to the Turkish state. But the Turks are generally hostile to the Syrian government, and though they could tolerate Assad’s undisputed power, they see no reason to make his life any easier by surrendering Idlib.
There is, of course, always another explanation. Turkey’s military boasts nearly a million soldiers, but only some of them are well trained and well equipped. Had these soldiers been deployed to Idlib, the situation might look different. But they weren’t. In 2016, the military staged a failed coup against the Turkish government, which has spent the intervening years tightening its control over the armed forces. Committing main forces to a foreign conflict, then, was not an ideal course of action. It was better for Ankara to regain control of the military while deploying a limited contingent to Syria and trying to figure out its foreign policy. This explains why Turkey aided the Syrians and fought some Syrian Kurdish groups but recused itself from the broader conflict.
Pure Geopolitical Terms
Russia intervened in Syria, too, following the debacle in Ukraine, where an anti-Russian government emerged in a crucial buffer state. Russia had no obvious strategic interest in Syria, and the attempts to divine some were dubious at best. Baffled onlookers posited that Russia wanted to control oil pipelines and place a major naval force in Syria. But Russia has plenty of oil of its own; what it needs are higher oil prices. Russia’s dream is to have a naval force in the Mediterranean, but that dream could easily become a nightmare, since any force it placed in the Mediterranean would have to be supplied through the Bosporus, which the Turks could block at will.
The real reason Russia intervened in Syria was to show its own public that it could act like a great power. Saving Assad, a staunch Russian ally, was secondary but still important, hence why Russia was compelled to support the attack on Idlib. The obvious problem is that it would bring Russia into conflict with Turkey, with which it is only sometimes allied.
In pure geopolitical terms, a Russian alliance with Turkey would benefit Russia, which could place a fleet in the Mediterranean, stabilize the Caucasus and put the United States into a worse position than it once was. Supporting an assault on Idlib, then, would appear to be irrational for the Russians. The Turks have been increasingly hostile to the United States, which has just placed tariffs on Turkey, partly over the detention of an American, partly over Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems and partly to signal to Ankara that the U.S. has run out of patience. This was the perfect moment to block the Syrians and pick up major points from the Turks.
Part of the problem was Iran. Iranian power has expanded into Yemen, Lebanon and Syria. In Syria, Iranian and Hezbollah troops helped organize Assad’s forces and even participated in the fighting. As the Syrian army improved, fighting as it was alongside seasoned soldiers from Iran and Hezbollah, Russian ground forces that had never been all that plentiful anyway became moot. Russian air power was always a welcome addition to Assad’s arsenal, but Russian participation in a ground offensive on Idlib is unnecessary. The Iranians, wanting to play the role of dominant ally, would be happy to lend a hand. This would leave Russia isolated in a place it really didn’t want to be – stuck between Iran and Israel, which had become increasingly hostile to Iranian expansion and attacked its positions in Syria accordingly.
All this was in the backs of the minds of the leaders of Russia, Iran and Turkey, who met Friday to discuss the situation in Idlib. Iran and Russia supported an attack. Turkey did not. This immediately tested the limits of Russia-Turkey relations. Russia was proposing to put Assad’s forces on the Turkish border – not just a threat to Turkey but an embarrassing threat. With this move, Russia set back hopes for a long-lasting alliance with Turkey.
Russia probably thought that an alliance was a pipe dream anyway, one that the Turks might block at any moment. In any case, its control over the outcome in Syria, once considerable, is now negligible. The Syrian government really wants Idlib. The Iranian government really wants to be Assad’s best and most reliable ally. Opposing the attack would not necessarily have stopped it. It would have only isolated Russia. So it sided with Syria.
More Like Before
Then there is the United States, which has been relatively quiet until now, save for small detachments to the Syrian opposition and Kurdish militias. The U.S. has since moved more but still minor forces to the area. This raises the stakes for Russia, which would be careful to avoid American casualties, the U.S. response to which would be inevitable and would likely come in the air, given Washington’s air superiority. Russian President Vladimir Putin is still playing to his domestic audience and can’t afford a defeat. Iran is in no position to challenge U.S. air power a thousand miles away, and in any case has to worry about Israel. The United States’ decision to throw itself into the mix – implicitly with airstrikes, explicitly to counter chemical attacks – changes the entire dynamic.
If I am right in assuming Russia is losing control over the situation, engaging the U.S. on any level in Idlib is not something it wants. Nor is it something Iran wants. Assad may want it, and he may be able to do it by himself, but he also understands that the U.S. is bad at counterinsurgency but good at blowing things up. The Iranians and Russians need to think this through.
In the meantime, just as Russia moves from being an ally of Turkey to a threat, the U.S. shifts back to its old role as guarantor of Turkey’s national security. Turkey did not want to send its own forces into combat with an attack on Idlib. Given its air force, the U.S. has the option of engaging without massive forces on the ground. So suddenly the possibility of a realignment with Turkey opens up. Russia didn’t want to attack Idlib but seemed to be forced into it, and now really doesn’t want to do it, which hurts its credibility, especially with Assad. And Iran is considering whether to advise Syrian troops it controls to be heroic and go into the potential cauldron.
All this for one province most people have never heard of, let alone cared about, before. It’s not clear what will happen. I suspect the Russians will exert just enough influence to postpone or cancel the assault. Turkey will bargain as it does so well, forestalling any entente with the U.S. The Iranians will try to use this to turn Syria from Russia, but Assad is too shrewd to give himself to anyone irrevocably. Of course, I could be surprised to see the Russians lead the charge in Idlib and even more surprised to leave troops they have put in harm’s way wide open to a massive enemy assault. But the strategic realignment is most interesting because it leaves the world looking more like it did before anyone mentioned Idlib.