The last round of talks on Syria, the 14th of its kind to be held in Nur Sultan (former Astana), in Kazakhstan was concluded last week with a framework formula statement endorsed by Russia, Turkey and Iran, the guarantors of the talks aiming at working out a political solution to the nine-year-old Syria conflict. The trilateral talks with the delegates of both Syrian government and opposition factions covered controversial issues such as drafting of a postwar constitution, political transition, security arrangements, resettlement of millions of refugees as well as combatting terrorism. The talks were part of what has become known as the Astana Process which was launched in Turkey in 2017 in support of the UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva which have since yielded limited fruit and humble success on the ground.

Deputy director of the Kazakhstan Institute for Strategic Studies, Sanat Kushukumbaev explained that the meeting aimed to “focus on technical issues, in the northern part of Syria, the area of Idlib, and the banks of the Euphrates. It’s about expanding previous agreements regarding the Safe Zone in northeastern Syria. This is a sensitive area where there are Turks, Kurds, and remaining terrorists from the Islamic State (ISIS).” However, many observers and analysts of the communique issued at the end of the last round of talks in Nur Sultan, and the statement made by the official Syrian delegation at the talks, headed by Syria’s UN ambassador Bashar Jaafari, pointed out that perhaps one of the most important achievements at this round was a unanimous agreement on the need to get rid of terrorists in Idlib and elsewhere in Syria, for any political process to be viable and successful.

A Green Light to Start Mother of Battles in Idlib?

Focus has centred for much of the year on the possibility of an imminent launch of Syria’s last major battle in Idlib, delayed for years by political and demographic complications as well as international pressure, and the fact that the three main players, at long last, might have given the green light for a major military operation by the Syrian army and its allies to liberate Idlib from the firm grip of al Nusra fanatics and other extremists terror groups. However, a side-track distraction might have shifted emphasis, temporarily at least, to Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city and economic capital liberated some two years ago in a landmark turn of tide in the war in favour of the Syrian government and its allies.

The Russian defence ministry has confirmed earlier reports of terrorists amassing their forces in the countryside of Aleppo. The ministry spotted the transfer of MLRS (Multiple Launcher Rocket Systems), tanks and armoured vehicles to the western outskirts of the city. The move coincided with growing warnings of a potential ‘chemical plot’ by terrorists in Idlib -similar to previous fabrications- that have induced US and western military strikes against Syrian airfields and other military installations as well as research centres. Recently released documents and confessions have revealed that the chemical verification reports have been tampered with and that White Helmets chemical ploys were utterly fabricated.

Last-minute Attempts to Side-track the Idlib Big Bang

The announcement came straight after the Astana declaration calling for the need to fight terror groups in Idlib, and the need for return of the city under Syrian government control and that the sovereignty of the Syrian state should be respected and maintained. The communique was signed by Turkey as well as by groups under its control. This was interpreted by many observers as a tripartite green light for the Syrian army, who has mobilized massive forces and overwhelming firepower close to Idlib, to launch its Mother of All Battles in the province which harbours some 10000 terrorists including hardcore anti-government fighters who took refuge in Idlib following military defeats or as part of previous reconciliation deals with the government.

Ruslan Mamedov, an expert at the Russian Council for International Affairs, told the official Syrian news agency SANA that “the outcome of all Astana resolutions call for fighting terrorism and liberation of all Syrian territories from terrorists’ control.” “Any settlement in Syria preserve the integrity of Syrian land as well as the sovereignty of the state over every inch of its territories,” Mamedov maintained. Hence, all eyes – despite marginal issues around Aleppo’s western outskirts and east of the Euphrates river- are focused on Idlib and the long-awaited showdown there. The only remaining question, for the time being, is when does the Syrian army and its allies choose the zero hour for the looming big bang.