With the last of Syria’s rebels contained in Idlib province, President Bashar al-Assad would desperately like to make 2019 the year that the civil war finally ends.
All things considered, 2018 was a relatively fruitful year for Damascus. Among other gains, key areas in southern Syria as well as Ghouta — the last area of the capital still under rebel control — were recaptured. On the diplomatic and economic fronts, Assad scored a key breakthrough with the reopening of the Jordan-Syria Naseeb border crossing. Aside from areas of the country occupied by the Kurds, the US and Turkey, just one key irritant remains: Idlib.
Although a full-scale offensive on the rebel-held province appeared imminent in early October, a shaky ceasefire was secured by Turkey and Russia. However, a key element of the ceasefire has not been implemented. Specifically, Turkey has not been able to induce the Al-Qaeda-linked Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) — which control much of the province — to withdraw from Idlib. Assad could use the pretext of the terrorist organisation’s presence to launch an attack.
But a major offensive now seems unlikely, at least for the time being. Syria lacks the manpower and hardware to launch an independent attack and Russia is wary of confronting Turkey — which has considerable influence with the remaining rebels — and possibly even the US. Expect the status quo to hold, or for Turkey and its rebel allies to launch their own offensive against HTS, possibly with Russian support.
Henry is a Middle East and North Africa team editor and analyst. From Damascus to Tel Aviv he will keep you up to date with all the important developments in the region.