Potential Military Conflict Scenarios In The NWS

December 28, 2020

CONTEXT

We refer to the North West of Syria (NWS) as the opposition-held areas of Idlib province, the western Aleppo countryside and a small enclave of Latakia’s northern countryside. Despite the announcement of the Sochi ceasefire agreement in September 2018 between Russia and Turkey, since May 2019 the regime has continued to escalate the bombing and shelling of several communities in the NWS. The attacks intensified significantly since January 2020, leading to the regime taking over the entire M5 highway and several strategic cities and towns in southern Idlib including Maaret Al-Noman and Saraqeb, in addition to a significant part of Aleppo’s countryside by March 2020. This escalation has caused a massive wave of displacement of nearly one million people according to the Response Coordination Group RCG). In March 2020, Turkey and Russia announced a ceasefire agreement in the NWS. However, the ceasefire appears to be as fragile as the 2018 Sochi agreement, as the regime, with direct support from Russia, continues to target several areas to the south of the M4, and might soon launch another offensive to capture more territory.

The NWS of Syria is of interest to Turkey for the following reasons:

  1. The NWS is currently home to around 3.5 million people, and any major regime military advancement in the area will result in a large-scale displacement and an influx of refugees closer to the Turkish border, potentially breaching the border and crossing into Turkey, which poses security, economic and political risks.
  2. To various degrees, the NWS is within Turkey’s sphere of influence and keeping this region under the control of the opposition gives Turkey more leverage over the talks in Astana and Geneva.
  3. Turkey may compromise and give some concessions to Russia in the NWS. However, Turkey will likely push harder to keep a buffer zone alongside its border under the opposition control, within which Turkey aims to resettle IDPs who fled and will flee from their communities in the NWS, to avoid possible an influx of refugees into Turkey.

Even though the NWS is not a rich region in resources such as oil and water, there are a few strategic components in the NWS which fall under the regime and likely the Russian interest:

  1. Bab Al-Hawa crossing between Turkey and Syria is considered a strategic crossing due to its political and economic significance. The crossing is currently the only one authorized for the UN to deliver aid into the NWS.
  2. The significance of the M4, the Aleppo-Latakia international highway, in terms of economic gains and mobility and connection between regime held-areas.
  3. To stop the opposition from conducting drone attacks on the Russian military base in Hmeimim in the south-east of Latakia.

There are three main groups of the armed opposition currently active in the NWS

  1. Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) is the dominant military actor in the NWS. HTS has followed a pragmatic approach, aiming to secure its position as the sole strategic partner with Turkey, while maintaining a jihadist ideology, which has changed to focus locally rather than internationally, against the traditional ideology of jihadist groups. HTS has been attempting to present itself as an acceptable local opposition group by disowning its extremist connections and affiliation with Al-Qaeda. The group has taken several steps towards claiming its moderate credentials by undermining the prominent hard-core jihadist elements within it, and also other more radical groups such as the Guardians of Religion (Hurras Eddin). However HTS continues applying its Jihadist and Islamic views, by imposing Islamic rules in its courts, hijab on women in the community, and imposing Zakat which is the Islamic taxation system. HTS’s main interest in the NWS is to maintain its military and governance dominance, even if that means giving up some territories to the regime.
  2. Groups of hard-core Jihadi elements, such as the Guardians of Religion, founded by former HTS commanders who rejected HTS’s new approach. In addition, there are other Jihadi groups who have existed since the start of the conflict and have never joined HTS, such as the Islamic Turkistan Party and a few smaller jihadi groups. In general, these groups reject the current ceasefire and de-escalation agreement between Turkey and Russia, and they are suspected of being responsible for multiple attacks on Russian military vehicles patrolling the M4 with the Turkish army. Furthermore, these groups are accused of attacking, at least once, a Turkish military convoy in the NWS as they protested against the current ceasefire agreement.
  3. The Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF), under the umbrella of the Syrian National Army (SNA), which operates in the Turkish-held areas in the northern and north-eastern Aleppo countryside. In general, these groups follow Turkish instructions and are not expected to launch any attacks or engage in battle without a green light from Turkey.

POTENTIAL SCENARIOS

(Interactive maps: use the slider to compare current (left) with scenario (right) maps)

Scenario 1
No major ground military operation

Probability: Likely

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De-escalation continues, no major ground military operation with intermittent violations through regime shelling on the towns south of the M4. This scenario will not cause a significant displacement of civilians.

Indicators:

  • Continuation of Turkish political statements on the importance of the ceasefire in Idlib.
  • Turkish official visits to the NWS military bases and IDP camps, signaling that these areas are under Turkey’s custody
  • Continuation of the enforcement of Turkish military presence in Idlib and, in particular, in locations south of the M4.
  • Increased spread of COVID-19 in regime held areas, delaying any possible attacks due to logistical issues.
  • Increased spread of COVID-19 in Russia.
  • Decline in the military capability of the non-HTS radical Jihadi groups in the NWS.
  • Continuation of the joint Russian-Turkish military patrols along the M4.

Scenario 2
Regime forces capturing south of the M4

Probability: Probable
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Regime forces launching a military ground operation, capturing all of the region south of the M4. This scenario will result in a medium scale wave of displacement (approximately 100 – 150 K people) from the towns and villages in the captured areas towards the north of Idlib and into the Turkish-held areas in Aleppo countryside.

Indicators:

  • Increase in hostilities against the joint Russian – Turkish military patrols on the M4 highway.
  • Regime aerial attacks on the towns south of the M4.
  • Increasing reports in pro-regime and Russia media outlets about upcoming military operations in Idlib.
  • Continuation of the enforcement of Turkish military presence in Idlib, but strictly within areas north of the M4.
  • Cessation of the joint Russian – Turkish military patrols on the M4.

Scenario 3
Regime forces capturing south of the M4 and Jisr Al-Shoghour

Probability: Probable
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Regime forces launching a military ground operation and capturing all the territory to the south of the M4 in addition to Jisr Al-Shoghour city and Latakia countryside. This scenario will result in a large wave of displacement (approximately 400 K people) from towns south of the M4 and Jisr Al-Shogour city into the northern Idlib region and the Turkish-held areas of the Aleppo countryside.

Indicators:

  • Deployment of regime military reinforcements in southern and western Idlib.
  • Increased Russian reports of drone attacks by the opposition on Hmeimim military base.
  • Russian aerial attacks on the Jisr Al-Shoghour and Latakia countryside.
    Increased reports in pro-regime and Russia media outlets about upcoming military operations in Idlib.
  • Russian official statements on the risk of radical armed groups in Idlib.
  • Cessation of the joint Russian – Turkish military patrols on the M4.

Scenario 4
Regime forces reaching the Bab Al-Hawa border crossing

Probability: Probable
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Regime forces launching a military ground operation and capturing Atareb, Daret Azza and Dana cities and reaching the Bab Al-Hawa crossing on the Turkish border, cutting the connection between the NWS and the Turkish-held area in northern Aleppo. This scenario will result in a large wave of displacement (approximately 1 Million) from those cities into the northern west of Idlib and into the Turkish-held areas.

Indicators:

  • Increased political tension between Turkey and Russia.
  • Relocation of Faylaq al-Sham and National Army fighters from Idlib towards northern Aleppo.
  • Russian official statements on the risk of the radical armed groups in Idlib.
  • Cessation of the joint Russian – Turkish military patrols on the M4.
  • Deployment of regime forces in the western Aleppo countryside.

Scenario 5
Regime forces capturing the entire of NWS

Probability: Low Probability
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Regime forces launching a major military operation and capturing the entirety of the NW; this scenario will result in a massive and unprecedented wave of displacement (approximately 3 million) from Idlib towards the Turkish-held area in northern Aleppo, with large groups of IDPs attempting to cross the border into Turkey.

Indicators:

  • Turkey withdrawing or significantly decreasing its military presence from the NWS.
  • Increased political tension between Turkey and Russia.
  • Relocation of Faylaq al-Sham and the National Army fighters from Idlib towards northern Aleppo.
  • Russian official statements on the risk of the radical armed groups in NWS.

Scenario 6
Full implementation of the ceasefire in NWS

Probability: Low Probability
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Full implementation of the ceasefire in NWS, and Turkish-led efforts to undertake major reforms in the military and governance structure in the NWS, leading to either dissolving or limiting the role of HTS and other more radical groups.

Indicators:

  • Turkey imposing the factions of the Syrian National Army (SNA) that they are backing as the sole military power securing the M4.
  • Significant increase in the flow of Turkish-backed SNA from the Turkish-held area into the NWS.
  • Handing over Bab Al-Hawa crossing to the Turkish- backed Syrian Interim Government (SIG).
  • SIG returning to the NWS to officially take up its role as an administrative power and engaging publicly with Local Councils and Directorates.
  • Increase in assassinations and attacks against HTS commanders.
  • Turkish government providing direct support to service provision and administrative bodies in the NWS.