The Syrian regime’s impending assault on Idlib, the last rebel-held enclave in Syria, could be among the bloodiest battles in Syria’s civil war with significant humanitarian and geopolitical consequences. The regime’s retaking of Idlib would mark a significant milestone in Bashar al-Assad’s campaign to re-establish his control over the war-torn country. While regime victory in this battle would not herald the end of conflict in Syria, it would deprive anti-Assad rebels of their last stronghold and likely be the last major battle in the Syrian civil war.

A man holding a shovel surveys a crater left by what locals said was a Scud missile strike in Shilakh, in Syria’s Idlib province, March 8, 2013. Scuds aimed by President Bashar Assad’s military at rebel-held areas in the early years of the Syrian civil war killed scores of people, many of them civilians. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)
A man surveys a crater left by what locals said was a Scud missile strike in Shilakh, in Syria’s Idlib province, March 8, 2013. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

In many ways, Idlib is a microcosm of the Syrian conflict and its multi-faceted complexity. A multitude of armed Islamist factions vie for power on the ground. Regional patrons—in this case Turkey—are attempting to control these fractious groups and shape the outcome in Idlib. Russia and Iran are key power brokers who can determine both the timing and scope of the anticipated assault on Idlib. The offensive could feature the use of chemical weapons—yet another distinguishing characteristic of the Syrian battlefield. Most critically, the offensive’s humanitarian consequences could be catastrophic, leading to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

The United States and Europe have warned against a Syrian offensive. They cite concerns that the battle could spark a humanitarian catastrophe, while the United States has issued a stern warning that it would respond should the Syrian regime use chemical weapons. Yet, Damascus and its allies appear determined to move forward with the attack. 

The March to Idlib

Signs of a major Syrian military campaign to retake Idlib have been mounting. Beginning in late July, following the Assad regime’s successful offensive against Dera’a and Quneitra in the southwest, the regime has been massing forces in areas surrounding Idlib. Backed by Russia, regime forces have already undertaken limited airstrikes and artillery attacks in parts of Idlib governorate and leafletted areas urging people to surrender to Syrian government control. Russia is currently conducting naval exercises just off the Syrian coast, a clear show of strength meant to warn off any interference by the West in the looming battle. Meanwhile, Idlib’s armed groups blew up several bridges connecting Idlib to regime-held territory in order to thwart a regime-backed ground incursion.

Idlib governorate has been under insurgent control since March 2015 when Idlib city fell to anti-Assad rebels. In the intervening years, hardline jihadist factions have wielded increasing power on the ground, with Hayat Tahrir ash-Sham (HTS), an al-Qaida offshoot, deemed the most influential group. Indeed, Brett McGurk, U.S. envoy to the coalition to counter ISIS, last year declared, “Idlib province is the largest al-Qaida safe haven since 9/11.”

It is estimated that there are 70,000 fighters now based in Idlib. Many arrived in Idlib over the past several months, opting against signing “reconciliation” agreements with the Syrian regime in other parts of Syria where the regime has regained control. These fighters are therefore less likely to negotiate, but instead will fight to the end. HTS elements have been arresting other fighters in Idlib who had signaled an interest in compromise with the regime.

A Looming Humanitarian Disaster

The potential for a humanitarian catastrophe looms large. An estimated three million civilians live in Idlib, many of them displaced from other parts of Syria. The United Nations estimates that as many as 800,000 civilians could be displaced by the fighting. Trapped in Idlib, these civilians would have few safe options for escape even if humanitarian corridors are established, as proposed by the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Stefan de Mistura. Other than the Turkish-held Syrian enclave of Afrin, Idlib is largely surrounded by regime-held territory, presenting numerous perils to civilians escaping Idlib given its longstanding rebel affiliation. 
Meanwhile, Turkey’s border is currently closed to refugees. Indeed, Turkey—a key regional power broker in Idlib—has underscored its mounting worries about potential refugee flows. Turkey currently hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees, the highest number in the region, amid growing fatigue among the Turkish population and a deepening financial crisis.

A highly-anticipated summit between Turkey, Russia, and Iran to be held in Tehran on September 7 will likely be the last chance at compromise before the regime’s onslaught. Faint hope that a looming catastrophe in Idlib could still be averted resides in Turkey’s efforts to forestall a regime attack. Yet, Turkey appears to be faltering in its efforts to broker a compromise among Russia, Iran, and Idlib’s Turkish-backed armed factions. Ankara’s recent decision to designate HTS as a terrorist group could signal Turkey’s acquiescence to the coming battle. Alternatively, the move could be a last-ditch effort to peel off more malleable elements from HTS’s hardline extremists, paving the way for a more limited incursion rather than an all-out battle. 

Related Publications

ISIS is a Problem of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

ISIS is a Problem of Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Thursday, July 28, 2022

By: Sarhang Hamasaeed

More than three years after its military defeat in Iraq and Syria, ISIS is a downgraded threat thanks to the collective efforts of the U.S.-led global coalition that coalesced to defeat it along with Iraqi and Syrian partners. While the extremist group’s capacity has been drastically reduced and millions of people have returned home, ISIS has managed to continue attacks year after year despite no longer holding territory. Meanwhile, some of the most difficult human legacies — the challenges facing the people the ISIS conflict left behind — are still with us, with no end in sight.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Violent Extremism

Putin and Erdogan in Iran to Discuss Syria’s Future, Ukraine War

Putin and Erdogan in Iran to Discuss Syria’s Future, Ukraine War

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

By: John Drennan;  Sarhang Hamasaeed;  Mona Yacoubian

The leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran are gathering in Tehran, with Ankara’s threat of a new incursion into northern Syria likely to top the agenda. While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has both domestic and strategic reasons for the move, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi want to maintain the status quo in Syria, where both their countries have expended significant resources to prop up the Assad regime. Russia’s war on Ukraine will also feature prominently at the trilateral summit. Iran has offered to provide Moscow with drones and Putin and Erdogan are reportedly set to discuss restarting Ukrainian grain exports in the Black Sea.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Conflict Analysis & PreventionGlobal Policy

Could Syria Have Been Saved by a U.S. Effort to Bring It to Peace with Israel?

Could Syria Have Been Saved by a U.S. Effort to Bring It to Peace with Israel?

Thursday, July 14, 2022

By: Adam Gallagher

Over a decade into Syria’s civil war, it’s hard to fathom the country at peace and integrated with the international community. The Assad regime’s brutal oppression of protests in March 2011 sparked more than 10 years of violence, conflict and tragedy in the country. But in the weeks before, there was quiet hope that a clandestine U.S. effort could broker a land-for-peace deal between Israel and Syria. For Syria, such a peace agreement would have resulted in the lifting of U.S. sanctions and financial assistance, trade and investment from the international community, giving Syrians hope for a better future.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

Event Extra: The Untold Story of a U.S. Attempt to Forge Israel-Syria Peace

Event Extra: The Untold Story of a U.S. Attempt to Forge Israel-Syria Peace

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

By: Adam Gallagher

In a new USIP book, Ambassador Frederic Hof tells the story of a secret U.S. effort to broker peace between Israel and Syria between 2009-2011. Just as that effort seemed to be making important progress, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime began to violently suppress Syrian protesters, scuttling the chance for peace. Hof discusses what the foundation of Israel-Syria peace would have looked like, the pre-2011 perceptions of Assad as a "reformer," President Biden's trip to the Middle East and how the international community should deal with the Syrian dictator today.

Type: Podcast

Global Policy

View All Publications