This week, as Russia deployed a fleet of warships off the Syrian coast in anticipation of a showdown over Idlib, Iran was noticeably absent from the scene.
Tehran has preferred not to anger its neighbor Ankara over the fate of Idlib, Syria’s last opposition-held province and one of the de-escalation zones designated by the Astana allies, along with Moscow.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned last week that a military solution for the province, which has taken in hundreds of thousands of displaced people, would be a “disaster.” Iran, which has seen its relationship with Turkey improve through Ankara’s Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar, and intelligence chief, Hakan Fidan, has taken note.
Tehran’s concerns over Idlib decreased after Turkey installed monitoring points in the province, most crucially in the areas bordering the southern countryside of Aleppo, the headquarters of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Syria since 2013.
In July, Idlib’s significance to Iran evaporated with the evacuation of the Shiite villages of Fuaa and Kefraya, where 7,000 residents and fighters had been trapped for years.
Iran has now relinquished the fate of Idlib to a Russian understanding with Turkey.
Sources on the ground say Iran has not deployed any Afghan or Iraqi Shiite militiamen to Idlib, limiting military reinforcements to official units from the Syrian army — mainly the Fourth Brigade Special Forces, led by Major General Maher al-Assad, the brother of President Bashar al-Assad.
Russia in recent days deployed a contingent of warships from its Northern Fleet off the coast of Syria — a move Moscow said was taken to deter any US strike against its ally Damascus as the battle for Idlib looms.
The fleet “included at least 10 vessels and two submarines – with more on the way,” the Russian daily newspaper Izvestia said, adding that most of the flotilla is carrying Kalibr cruise missiles.
Russia’s Ministry of Defense justified the deployment as a deterrent against new American strikes, claiming that Syrian opposition factions were prepping to stage a chemical attack in a bid to draw the US into the fray.
Washington’s response to the Russian accusations was rapid action in the eastern Mediterranean. On August 25, the USS Ross arrived with 28 Tomahawk missiles, followed by The Sullivans destroyer.
The US moves appear to have complicated Russian operations. They have also narrowed the prospect for any chemical attack.
If chemical weapons were to be deployed in Idlib, the likely US response would be to bomb new and sensitive sites, potentially destroying what is left of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center — the government agency responsible for the development of chemical weapons and which came under US attack in April.
Any US attack could also target the Fourth Brigade, which is believed to be the gatekeeper for the deployment of chemical weapons.
A battle without chemicals
Turkey assumed the role of guarantor for the Idlib de-escalation zone through the Astana Process. But Russia has set its sights on the rebel-held zone, raising the prospect of a new military operation — naming Jabhat al-Nusra, Syria’s longtime Al Qaeda affiliate, as the pretext for intervention.
The threat of a battle for Idlib has been cause for friction between the Astana partners, and a flurry of high-level meetings has yet to lead to a consensus.
Turkey has asked Russia for more time to defang Jabhat al-Nusra and press the group to hand over its weapons, and to take on factions designated as terrorist groups.
For Ankara, a Russian-backed operation by Assad’s forces in Idlib threatens to shift the political equation in favor of Damascus.
Russia, however, is likely to seek a limited operation, especially in the Jisr al-Shughour area, home to an opposition drone base that has targeted Russia’s forces at Hmeimim airbase in neighboring Latakia.
Moscow operates on the assumption that Idlib’s opposition factions are under Turkish protection, and it — like Tehran — will seek to avoid a direct confrontation with its new ally.
A major engagement in Idlib would also hamper Russia’s campaign for refugee return. A military operation in an area, which the UN says is home to more than 4 million people, would launch a new wave of Syrian refugees into Turkey, and then toward the European Union.
Turkey would find itself saturated with tens of thousands of fugitives who chose Idlib as a sanctuary because they refused to settle their cases with the Syrian authorities and return to life under regime control.
The sensitivity of the Russian-Turkish relationship, coupled with the US military moves in the Mediterranean and Iran’s absence from the battlefield, will temper the scope of any confrontation over Idlib.
If the last opposition-held province does see a major battle, it will be fought without chemical weapons.
Warning from UN
The United Nations, however, fears a humanitarian crisis given that about 800,000 people in Idlib province are already in a dire situation and could be displaced.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed to the Syrian government and all other parties on Wednesday “to exercise restraint and to prioritize the protection of civilians.”
He said full-scale military operations in Idlib province could lead to a “humanitarian catastrophe” and also cautioned against the use of chemical weapons.