Syria: Has Iran Won Over Russia in Hama and Idlib?

(Damascus) Things are moving fast in Syria’s Idlib and Hama countryside, leading towards a final military showdown and a possible long-anticipated all-out war between the Syrian army backed by Russian aerial support on the one hand, and Islamic militant groups lead by the outlawed Al Nusra terrorist organisation and other Turkish-backed groups on the other.

The Syrian army has amassed some of its elite forces in the area, having already commenced a fierce bombardment and air raids against militants strongholds, inflicting heavy losses among terrorists and recapturing some villages in the hills and northern rural areas of the town of Hama and advanced into parts of the Idlib governorate where an estimated 70 thousand hardline militants have been bracing themselves for the decisive battle that will shape Syria’s fate in the war against terror.

The two major allies of Syria in its 8-year conflict, namely Iran and Russia, have had different approaches to solving the ultra-complicated situation in Idlib in particular. Putin’s Russia has kept open lines with Erdogan’s Turkey, with the Turkish borders being just a stone’s throw away from Idlib, Turkish forces and observation posts are scattered all over the area. Iran has always maintained a more decisive military operation in order to uproot terrorists and Islamic fanatic groups in the area.

Whilst Russia seemed to have the upper hand in averting a military confrontation that could develop into an all-out war with undesirable consequences, this time round, and following the failure of the last round of talks in Astana a few weeks ago, Iran’s approach seems to have prevailed, and a military confrontation is already underway around Idlib and Hama, with the Syrian army seemings more than ever before to be determined to end the presence of Al Nusra and other terrorist organisations in Syria, once and for all. The possibility of a clash with invading Turkish forces, albeit unwanted, remains a reasonable probability. Turkey occupies or indirectly controls large areas within Syria along the borders between Afrin and Jarablus.

Russia, however, seems to have lost faith in Erdogan’s promises and commitments under the Sochi agreement with Putin to help dismantle hardline groups in and around Idlib, and empty the intended demilitarized buffer zone there of heavy weapons. The deadline for that has passed, and Erdogan seems to have faltered on his pledges to Putin. To add fuel to an already raging fire, terrorist groups in the area have launched several mortar and rocket attacks both against civilians in neighbouring towns and villages in recent weeks, and against Syrian army positions as well.

The response was quick and devastating, with the overwhelming firepower of the Syrian and Russian air and land bombardment of fortifications, ammunition dumps and terrorist camps in the area. The scene seems to be set now for a major advance and a final showdown between the warring parties. The only consideration deterring an all-out onslaught is the densely populated city of Idlib and the massive humanitarian cost such a major battle would almost definitely inflict.

With the situation east of the Euphrates river seemingly put on a back burner for the time being at least, and Kurdish militia leaders who control vast sways of land in that strategic part of Syria, dampening down their heated rhetoric regarding separation from Damascus, all eyes are now focused on events in and around Hama and Idlib.

The mentor of Kurdish hardliners Abdullah Ocalan, the jailed leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkey has called on the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to pursue solutions in Syria other than through conflict. Ocalan, who has been imprisoned in Turkey for more than 20 years, also called on the SDF to take Turkish sensitivities in Syria into consideration, relayed in a statement read by his lawyers who met him for the first time in 8 years.

“We believe that, within the scope of the SDF, problems in Syria should be solved by avoiding a culture of conflict, with constitutional assurances outlined within the framework of Syria’s territorial integrity,” the statement by Ocalan and three other PKK leaders said. The SDF is spearheaded by the People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters, and backed by the United States.

At the time of this article’s writing, both the Syrian army and its opponents in Idlib, Hama and parts of the Aleppo countryside are deploying massive forces and fire power in the area, with rockets and artillery shells raining down on terrorist strongholds and positions day and night. The unabated bombardment, coupled with both Russian and Syrian air raids against major fortified targets around Idlib is set to continue or even expand in the coming days and weeks.

It is difficult, almost unimaginable, that it might be possible to silence the guns now that dialogue has ended between the hardline militant groups with conflicting affiliation to the east and west. This being the case, Idlib is set be the setting for a Syrian Battles like none we have seen before.