GAZIANTEP, Turkey—Syrian activists report that the Assad regime has launched its most intense assault since the beginning of the war almost nine years ago. The target is Idlib, the last opposition holdout in northwestern Syria.
All indicators suggest that the campaign will produce a new humanitarian disaster and be the beginning of a final confrontation between Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) forces and Russian-Iranian-backed pro-Assad units.
The fighting undermines the perception of a seamless Turkish-Russian rapprochement and reveals the hidden gridlock that exists even after years of negotiations over key issues that are critical to Turkey’s security and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political prospects.
The unbridgeable gap between Moscow and Ankara has created space for the United States to acquire more leverage in its relationship with Turkey by acting as a counterweight to Moscow’s ambitions, if the Trump administration chooses to do so.
“The situation here is shit,” says Abd al-Rahman al-Aissawi a local activist in the town of Mara’at al-Nu’aman, which has iconic status as a holdout against the regime. “In nine years of war, this is the worst bombing we’ve ever seen. This is worse than the regime’s assault on east Aleppo [in 2016]. At least then, we negotiated a way out. This time, there’s nowhere to go, we have to fight. The regime knows this, and is paving the way for a truly scorched earth.”
In addition to a stepped up Syrian-Russian air campaign, the war zone in Idlib looks further set to escalate due to increased involvement by powers with ties to the Syrian opposition, in particular Turkey and to a lesser extent the United States.
Since the most recent reboot of hostilities on January 16, FSA units reportedly received a new influx of American-made TOW anti-tank missiles that they used to repel regime advances around the town of Abu Jurayf, about 10 miles northeast of the rebel stronghold of Mara’at al-Nu’aman.