Fars News, a subset of the Iranian revolutionary guard corps, is crowing about the impending Syrian-Russian-Iranian axis assault on Idlib governate in Syria.
While Fars News is only occasionally reliable, in this case, it is telling the truth. Axis ground and air forces have moved into position to smash their way into Idlib and pacify the province under Syrian President Bashar Assad’s dictatorial banner. It will be very bloody. Yet, it will also be in an exercise in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s skilled manipulation.
That’s because Russia has committed to its erstwhile ally President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey that it will not support — and will restrain — any Syrian massed attack on Idlib. Erdogan wants that commitment because, having already mostly ceded the Syrian initiative to Putin, he would completely lose face were Assad and Russia to rampage through Idlib and slaughter Syrian Sunnis.
Erdogan fashions himself as the ultimate Sunni leader and rightly worries that his acquiescence to this slaughter would damage his credibility. Turkey currently operates a number of military “observation” posts in Idlib so as to deter any attacks by Assad.
Still, the attack is coming.
Russia ultimately shares Assad’s interest in destroying Idlib, the last major rebel holdout in Syria. It does so because if Vladimir Putin can secure Assad’s dominion, he will move towards his own ultimate objective: replacing America as the international power broker in the Middle East. Putin wants Middle Eastern leaders like the Saudis and the Egyptians to view him as the only international leader with the strategic aggression, courage, and means to achieve their interests. In return, he wants them to buy Russian military equipment and support his flagging economy. While the U.S. force presence in eastern Syria threatens Putin’s leverage over Syria’s political future, Russia believes it can end that presence in the near future, one way or another.
Of course, Putin doesn’t want to lose Erdogan if he can avoid it. The Turkish leader has become a valuable strategic ally both in the Middle East and in his undercutting of NATO unity.
I believe Putin will support the Assad-Iranian assault on Idlib while denying his own overt participation in that assault. Expect Russian air support, which will inevitably kill many civilians, but with false Russian caveats that those air strikes are designed to protect Russian forces to the west of Idlib. On the ground, Russia will deploy a limited number of special forces alongside paramilitary GRU cutout organizations like “Wagner” (they really don’t like being called out as cutouts, but that’s what they are). Russia will also provide targeting intelligence as much as possible. This will allow the axis ground forces to fight the most public side of the fight while, Putin hopes, throwing Erdogan just enough crumbs of Russian deniability to save face.
But ultimately, Putin is gambling that Erdogan knows who is boss. In turn, the blunt ground force assault on Idlib will come from Iranian-backed militias and Assad’s own forces. They’ll move through the province shooting, shelling, barrel bombing, and gassing their way through civilians and insurgents alike. To be clear, while there is a large number of al Qaeda fighters in Idlib, and the axis will thus claim to be acting in the name of counterterrorism, the axis will not even think twice about slaughtering civilians and nationalist-aligned insurgents alongside the terrorists.