In just a month the Syrian army has inflicted a huge defeat on the rebels. As soon as ISIS was finally defeat in eastern Syria in late 2017 the army wheeled back to the west and launched its biggest and perhaps most spectacular offensive against the rebels yes.
Even as Putin in mid-December was announcing a partial Russian withdrawal from Syria the Russian air force was helping soften up the rebels and set the stage for the offensive. Just before new year the offensive began in earnest.
Led by the best unit in the army, the veteran Tiger Forces, the Syrian army attacked the main rebel-held territory of ‘greater Idlib’ on a narrow front from the south and just kept pushing.
Rather than spread out its offensive forces the Russian-assisted offensive broke through a single vulnerable sector and gradually drove deep into enemy territory across rural Idlib. The enemy manning the eastern front of the rebel pocket faced a dilemma — withdraw and give up territory easily or stay and risk encirclement.
First they stayed, but in mid-January when the second pincer of the operation was unleashed from the north the rebels took to flight and a large part of their front simply collapsed. Next the Syrian army took the Abu Duhur airbase, and then after some hard fighting in late January also the Abu Duhur town which was the ultimate goal of the offensive.
The Abu Duhur airbase has a huge moral significance for the Syrian army as it was the setting of past heroism and atrocity. For three years between September 2012 and September 2015 some 250 Syrian soldiers were encircled in the base and under siege by the Islamist rebels. When the rebels finally overran the base they captured 56 surviving defenders (some managed to sneak out and reach government lines) and promptly murdered them.
Later that month the Russian intervention in Syria began and now the Syrian army has bitten off a huge chunk of greater Idlib and is back in Abu Duhur.
Over the last two years the Syrian government has allowed the evacuation of many thousands of rebels from small surrounded pockets to the main rebel-held territory in Idlib, but this has not made greater Idlib impregnable.
On the contrary the Abu Duhur offensive shows that given the right circumstances, backing and strategy the largest Islamist enclave is very vulnerable and can only be saved by potential Turkish intervention.
In particular, just as in the fighting for east Aleppo, the rebels have shown that they will offer competent and determined resistance where lines of control have been static for a long while, but are relatively hapless when they need to react to a changing situation.
In east Aleppo the problem was that once one of the many bickering groups that form the rebellion would be forced to withdraw the others had a hard time quickly reshuffling the zones of responsibility to plug the gap. Thus prolonged, bitter resistance was followed by a sudden, unexpected unraveling and capitulation.
It seems that the increasing stranglehold on rebel forces by Al-Qaeda (namely in the form of the JFS-led HTS coalition) has not fixed that problem for the rebels.
In fact the rebel weakness could be sensed when the Syrian army was still focused on fighting ISIS in the east. It was clear to anyone, the rebels most of all, that once ISIS was out of the picture it would free up the army to for a major push against them. Correspondingly the rebels launched a number of offensives in 2017 to try to interfere, but these just didn’t go anywhere.
The Syrian army offensive into Abu Duhur was a costly one, with up to 500 killed on its side alone. But in the six-year war that has now killed well over 100,000 fighters on the government side there have been many months where that many lives were lost with no strategic gain to show for it.
This month instead a major was defeat inflicted on Al-Qaeda and friends so that except if Erdogan tries to interfere a straightforward total military defeat of the rebels is now the most realistic outcome of Syria’s Islamist rebellion.