Bashar Assad’s forces appear to have lost their final foothold in Idlib province, with the rebel coalition known as Jaish al Fateh, or Conquest Army, taking the city of Ariha from government forces in heavy fighting. Reuters reports:
The loss of Ariha would leave the insurgents in control of most of Idlib a region that borders Turkey and neighbors President Assad’s heartland in Latakia province on the Mediterranean coast.
The city, once home to more than 80,000 people, is strategically located on the main army supply lines between Idlib and Latakia.
This comes on top of previous victories:
The Nusra Front has made gains in northwestern Syria alongside other insurgent groups in recent weeks, seizing the city of Idlib, the town of Jisr al-Shughour and bringing them closer to government-held coastal areas north of the capital.
As we have covered throughout the week, the Assad regime, which was already suffering heavy attrition from the long war, has been in serious trouble ever since Turkey and Saudi Arabia agreed to overlook disagreements among themselves (and by and large to ignore American objections—though there have been some reports that the US and Turkey may coordinate airstrikes against Assad in some limited circumstances) and back the non-ISIS Islamist rebels in Syria, led by the al-Nusra Front, an al Qaeda affiliate. Over at The Washington Institute‘s blog, Jeffrey White, a former senior defense intelligence official, breaks down the effects this has had on the ground:
While the regime still enjoys advantages in terms of aircraft, heavy armor, and artillery, opposition forces are now heavily armed with weapons taken from regime forces and some key systems (e.g., antitank guided missiles) provided from external sources. Major rebel offensive actions are normally “combined arms” affairs featuring tanks, artillery, mortars and other heavy weapons working with infantry.
Coordination and cooperation among rebel forces, especially in the north and south, has also improved significantly. The rebels are acting in concert at times, in places, and on a scale they could not before. The Islamist Jaish al-Fatah in Idlib province and its allies, and the Southern Front in the south, are the best examples of this. To this must be added the ability of ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, to implement its own strategy with well-conceived operations against regime forces in the east. Never before in the war has the regime faced capable and coherent forces in the east, north, and south. […]
Armed opposition logistics, a traditional weak point, appear to have improved to the point of allowing sustained offensive operations. This is a result of improved foreign assistance, reportedly from Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, and the opposition’s ability to acquire substantial amounts of arms and ammunition from regime forces as a result of battle. Most of the opposition’s heavy weapons have been acquired through capture either in Syria or, in the case of ISIS, Syria and Iraq.
(White’s piece provides sound strategic analysis throughout, and is well worth reading in full.)
With the Assad regime’s fortunes heading downward on almost all fronts, the next thing to look for is whether and to what extent Assad’s allies back him. Hezbollah’s chief hinted at committing more forces to the fight, and Iran may send more advisers. But if the Turks and Saudis are firm in their resolution and continue to work together, they may well be able to match whatever resources the Iranians and their friends can bring to bear.
If so, the Syrian endgame could become a more open proxy war between the Sunni Gulf powers (and Turkey, which has a separate agenda but hates having an Iranian client on its southern border) and Tehran. The consequences of such greater engagement would be both unpredictable and significant with regard to both the regional balance of power and the nuclear negotiations. Meanwhile, the US continues to sit on the sidelines as the battle for one of the historic hearts of the Middle East intensifies.