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Idlib Could Be the Last Major Battlefield of the Syrian Civil War. But Assad Won’t Take It Easily

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On Aug. 9, the Syrian army dropped leaflets on the province of Idlib telling residents that “the war is nearing its end” and urging them to cooperate with government forces. One showed grainy pre-war images of an old woman embracing a soldier; a young man studying; and a leafy, peaceful Damascus street: This is how we were before terrorism, it read. Then came photos of a destroyed neighborhood, a young boy carrying an unexploded shell, and women covered in niqabs and chained together. It’s time to stop the bloodshed and destruction, another flyer said.

For years, Syria’s defeated rebels have fled to the northern territory of Idlib, which was established as a “de-escalation zone” guaranteed by Turkey, Russia and Iran. As the government retook areas like Aleppo and eastern Ghouta, surrendering fighters and their families were sent to Idlib under a deal negotiated by the regime’s ally Russia. Now it is the last major opposition-held region in the country–and the last major obstacle to President Bashar Assad declaring victory. His regime is sending tanks north and has scaled up air attacks in preparation for what could be the final battle in this seven-year-long civil war.

But the siege-until-surrender strategy that allowed the government to retake control of other territories may be less feasible in Idlib. The province is home to more than 2 million people, including 70,000 fighters belonging to more than a dozen rebel factions. Although many of these groups are aligned against one another, few are likely to raise the white flag if Assad’s forces stage a major operation. “The morale here is high–the rebels and fighters here in Idlib are ready for any attack by the regime,” Amer Abu Anas, an opposition fighter in southern Idlib, tells TIME. Abu Anas says that in recent weeks, rebel groups have cracked down on dissent in Idlib, arresting those they think could side with the regime or seek reconciliation. “There should be no room for negotiations with the Syrian regime. This time we will fight to the last man.”

Yet despite their bravado, it’s unlikely these poorly armed, divided opposition groups can fend off the Syrian army and its allied militia backed by Iran and Russia. The U.N. and human-rights groups have warned of a humanitarian catastrophe if the Syrian government tries to retake Idlib by military force. Such a confrontation could push millions of refugees toward the Turkish border north of Idlib, raising the possibility of a broader conflagration. “Turkey provides significant support to many opposition groups,” notes Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, “and has its own military presence of 1,300 on the ground.”

Turkey has fashioned itself the protector of parts of northern Syria, putting troops on the ground in Idlib as part of an agreement reached with Russia. Having taken in more than 3 million Syrians already, the last thing it wants is a military confrontation that would send a fresh wave of refugees its way. Nor does Russia, arguably the Syrian regime’s most powerful friend, see the value in retaking Idlib. In late July, Russia’s special envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, said that “any large-scale operation in Idlib is out of the question.” Russia would like to see all of Syria under Assad’s control, but a full-scale military engagement would be costly, especially with Turkey involved.

Joost Hiltermann, director of the Middle East & North Africa program at the International Crisis Group, says he believes Turkey and Russia will stop the conflict from escalating. “In order for the regime to carry out a major assault on Idlib, you would have to have a major breakdown in relations between Russia and Turkey,” he says. “And I don’t see any breakdown at the moment. Turkey is in a bad state with the U.S. Turkey needs Russia. It needs other friends.” Russia, he adds, will also want to keep Turkey onside.

But it’s not clear if the interests of external powers will be enough to prevent bloodshed. Some of the more extreme rebel groups may not abide by Turkish orders. Even if Turkey can build an alliance of friendly rebels, that coalition might not follow Ankara’s orders if provoked. At the same time, the Syrian government has little patience for the diplomatic approach, even in the face of Russia’s misgivings. On the same day that Lavrentyev ruled out a major assault on Idlib, the regime’s representative to the U.N., Bashar Jaafari, said that if talks fail, the government would indeed retake it by force. “When it comes to the recapture of all Syrian territories,” Jaafari said, “there is no compromise.”

For now, Idlib can only await its fate. Mustafa Hassan, a civilian who was displaced several times before settling in Idlib with his wife and five children, says military action has already increased in southern Idlib, but for now it’s mostly calm in the historically more populous northern part of the province. Yet he fears there will be a prolonged and bloody battle if the regime does launch a full-scale assault. “There are thousands of opposition fighters who came from many other areas and were sent here by the government,” Hassan says. “There is no other place for those fighters to go now. They will fight until they die this time.”

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