As the war draws to a close, the major players will try to consolidate their positions.
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.