8 January 2020
- Maarat al-Numan assault does not suggest imminent offensive on Idlib, but Iran-US tensions will increase risk of clashes in Dair al-Zour suburbs
- Damascus may seek to capitalise on any increased Shia militia activity driven by Iran-US escalation
- Pro-government forces will seek to advance incrementally in Idlib Province, capturing strategic settlements on key roads
Russian-supported government troops attacked the north-western city of Maarat al-Numan in Idlib Province on 5 January, killing at least ten. Damascus’ forces have intensified their attacks on the city, approximately 40 km south of central Idlib, since they announced on 25 December that negotiations with the Turkish-backed rebels controlling the city had collapsed. The assault has caused a major spike in internal displacement, with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimating that over 300,000 people were displaced between 1 December 2019 and 1 January.
Russia and Turkey reached an agreement in September 2018 to avert a full government offensive against Idlib Province, envisaging that Ankara would use its influence over rebel forces to pressure them to withdraw from a buffer zone. However, the agreement was never fully implemented and Moscow has increased its airstrikes in the province since April 2019, reflecting rising frustration with Tahrir al-Sham (TaS) – one of the largest rebel groups – refusing to withdraw from the area. US President Trump said on 2 January that he had spoken to Turkish President Erdogan about de-escalating the recent increase in violence, but no plan of action was announced.
Assad has faced international criticism over the humanitarian impact of the recent attacks, with Trump urging all parties on 26 December to avoid worsening the displacement crisis. Washington also signed the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act into law on 20 December, setting out comprehensive penalties – including travel bans and asset freezes – for companies or individuals that cooperate with Assad and his administration. While these efforts will not be sufficient to prevent a broader offensive on Idlib, such a move is unlikely because the offensive against Maarat al-Numan chiefly reflects strategic considerations. Capturing the city is a priority for President Assad because it is situated on the M5 highway that connects the government-held cities of Damascus and Aleppo and regaining control of it would facilitate movement between these two major urban centres. The escalation in violence therefore likely reflects Assad’s aim of establishing control over key highways while gradually degrading rebel capabilities, and does not suggest that the Government intends to launch wider operations to remove TaS from Idlib.
Assad will continue to order incremental advances in strategically valuable areas of the province, focusing on key settlements situated on major roads. However, areas in the suburbs of Dair al-Zour are more likely to experience increased activity from pro-government forces in the coming weeks. This is because the area is strategically important for Assad and pro-Iran Shia militias, but is also a priority for the US, which launched airstrikes to prevent pro-government forces advancing there in early 2018 (see our 9 May 2018 Report). Damascus may now judge that it can benefit from the US’s increased focus on protecting its troops in the aftermath of the killing of Qassem Soleimani on 3 January – as well as pro-Iran militias’ desire to retaliate for the attack and undermine the US’s presence in Iraq and Syria – by coordinating with the militias to advance in the East. Any such efforts are unlikely to achieve significant success, as the US will not abandon the area to pro-Iran forces, but they will increase the likelihood of clashes around the Iraqi border and increased rocket fire from Shia militias in the coming weeks.