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Unilateral Russian ceasefire announcement likely only affords temporary delay to Syrian government offensive in Idlib province

20 May 2019
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Smoke rises above buildings during shelling by Syrian government forces and their allies on the town of Khan Sheikhun in the southern countryside of the opposition-held Idlib province on 11 May 2019. Source: Anas Al-Dyab/AFP/Getty Images

The Russian Ministry of Defence unilaterally announced a ceasefire in the opposition-held Idlib pocket on 19 May. This followed a limited advance by government forces into northern Hama province in recent weeks, in which the government captured the town of Kafr Nabouda and neighbouring villages, reportedly displacing around 150,000 civilians.

  • The Syrian government's military objective in Idlib is most likely to recapture the M4 and M5 highways and the Sahl al-Ghab valley. The Syrian government does not have the military capacity to retake and hold all remaining opposition-held territories in northwestern Syria in a conventional operation. It is instead likely to rely on the indiscriminate use of airstrikes, artillery, and potentially chlorine, to drive out the civilian population and stoke up a catastrophic humanitarian crisis that will make it increasingly difficult for the opposition to hold ground and ultimately force the opposition and its sponsor Turkey into negotiating a political settlement on the Syrian government's (and Russia's) terms. Offensive ground operations by the Syrian government will most likely focus on capturing areas of strategic value, such as the M4 and M5 highways, which connect Syria's economic capital of Aleppo to Latakia and Homs, and the fertile agricultural land of the Sahl al-Ghab valley.
  • The progress of military action in Idlib is partially dependent on ongoing negotiations between Turkey and Russia over other regional issues. As critical military sponsors of the Syrian government and armed opposition, respectively, Russia and Turkey are likely to use their influence over the conflict in Idlib to strengthen their respective negotiating positions on other regional issues, such as the fate of Kurdish-held northeastern Syria, and Turkey's acquisition of Russia's S-400 surface-to-air missile system. The success of any Syrian government offensive into Idlib relies on Russian approval and air support. Russia is likely to enable and, if necessary, halt the progress of the government's offensive in line with Turkey's willingness or ability to accede to Russian demands on other issues.

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