As Syrian forces mobilise for a final assault to retake the last rebel-held province of Idlib, an international tug of war between Turkey, Iran, Russia and the United States is taking shape that will decide the fate of two million residents.
Retaking Idlib will enable the Syrian government to finally regain control over most of the country for the first since the outbreak of the bloody civil war in 2011.
While Syrian forces backed by Russian air and naval firepower prepare for an attack on opposition fighters – including the once al-Qaeda-affiliated Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group – Moscow and Ankara are trying to negotiate a solution to spare the province from a devastating assault and avoid an influx of millions of Syrian refugees into Turkey.
Analysts, however, say the Idlib offensive is inevitable because negotiations between the various parties in Syria have consistently failed to end the civil war so far.
“I doubt if Turkey or others would be able to avoid an attack on Idlib or its takeover by the regime,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University.
Unless the US does something drastic, such as establishing a no-fly zone over the province, Syrian forces supported by Russia’s airpower will undoubtedly retake it, Landis told Al Jazeera.
Turkey maintains several military bases in the province. Recent Arabic press reports said Turkey has demanded that HTS – formerly known as al-Nusra Front – and other armed groups dissolve and leave Idlib.
Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, leader of Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, has reportedly declared he will not heed Turkish demands and ordered his fighters to “follow God, not Turkey” and prepare for battle.
But a prominent Jordanian Salafist with knowledge of the armed groups fighting in Syria cast doubt on al-Joulani’s latest call for his cadres to fight to the death.
HTS’ leader was being dishonest because “he truly wanted to go along with Turkey but wanted a bigger price for his compliance with its demands”, he told Al Jazeera, declining to be identified because he is banned from speaking to the media by Jordanian intelligence.
“When he did not get what he wanted from Turkey, he made his statement calling for war,” he said.
Based on his information and familiarity with HTS’ religious leadership, the Jordanian said HTS will dissolve and disperse while declaring the move was in “the best interest of religion and the people of Idlib”.
Landis agreed that time was up for the armed group as Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham’s options have become exhausted, especially with Turkey.
The Turkish government will not allow HTS members to resettle in Turkey for fear of being accused of harbouring “terrorists”, thereby complicating ties with Western intelligence agencies.
“HTS has reached the end of the line,” said Landis, also the author of the Syria Comment blog.
The only option the group’s fighters might have is relocation to northern Syria near Aleppo, where other rebels still have control. But even that option is complicated and could ignite fighting among the opposition factions.
The other player on the chessboard is Iran, which has provided steady political, financial, and military backing to Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad since the war began seven and a half years ago.
An estimated 1,000 Iranians – including senior members of the elite Revolutionary Guards – have been killed in Syria since 2012.
On Sunday, Iranian Defence Minister Amir Hatami met al-Assad and his Syrian counterpart Ali Abdullah Ayyoub.
“Not only the people of the region but the people of the world are indebted to the battles that have taken place against terrorists in Syria,” Hatami told Assad in a meeting, according to Iran’s Tasnim news agency.
He added Syria is “passing through the critical stage” and expressed hope at Iran’s involvement in the country’s reconstruction.
Iran’s military attache to Damascus, Brigadier-General Abolghasem Alinejad, said military advisers will remain in Syria under a defence agreement signed on Monday.