Analysis

With Chemical Attack, Syria's Assad Seeks to Corral Rebels in Urban Prison

The tactic is a similar one to that used by Russia in Chechnya - push insurgents out of countryside and into the city, where they can be easily annihilated.

A Syrian man collects samples from the site of a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, on April 5, 2017.
OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP

About a month ago a senior Russian officer was cited on the Arabic news website Al Bawaba estimating that the big campaign on Idlib will begin soon. The officer, who remained unnamed, said Syria and Russia intend to mobilize 25,000 to 30,000 combatants to conquer the city in a battle that could last several months.

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Was the attack with chemical weapons on Khan Sheikhoun, some 50 kilometers south of Idlib, the beginning of this campaign or was it vindictive score-settling with the rebel forces concentrated in this region? If this is an overall campaign, why did President Bashar Assad’s regime choose a chemical weapon and what is Idlib’s importance anyway?

In the past year Idlib, the second city to be occupied by the rebels and the first from which Islamic State forces retreated, has become the refuge of armed rebels from remote places like Damascus, Aleppo and Hama. An estimated 6,000 to 10,000 combatants from various militias are estimated to be concentrated in this rural district, whose population is 1.5 million.

Most of them are members of radical Islamic militias like the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, a relatively new organization that includes combatants from the Nusra Front and other organizations, together with units of the Free Idlib Army.

Damage at a site hit by airstrikes on Tuesday in the town of Khan Sheikhoun in rebel-held Idlib, Syria, April 5, 2017.
AMMAR ABDULLAH/REUTERS

Most of the combatants came to Idlib in the framework of local cease-fire agreements, under which the regime demanded their withdrawal from besieged towns and cities, as a condition to lifting the siege. Russia is coordinating this strategy in various parts of Syria, with relative success. Recently Iran joined in – it was partner to the agreement to lift the siege from the towns Medaya and Zabadani in return for liberating the towns of Kefraya and Foua, whose predominantly Shi’ite residents were under siege alongside Iranian fighters. Here too the militia fighters were allowed to leave for Idlib.

After regime forces retook Aleppo, it was clear Idlib was the next goal. In Aleppo the rebels waged urban warfare against the Syrian Army, based mainly on fortification and defense. This made it easier for the Syrian Army and Russian air force to crush the resistance.

But Idlib is another story. It’s a rural, widespread, open district, convenient for hiding and spreading guerrilla forces in. It has natural caves where combatants can be concentrated without being targeted by the Russian air force.

The Syrian Army’s goal is to gather the rebels as much as possible within Idlib itself, turning the city into a “prison” that would be easier to conquer in urban warfare. Some Syrian commentators point out that this was the Russian strategy in Chechnya, where the Russian offensive came from the suburbs and villages around Grozny to concentrate the Chechen rebels in the capital and wage a war of annihilation there.

Idlib’s importance for the Syrian regime isn’t only because it’s a refuge for rebel militias, but mainly because it serves as the rebels’ staging base for attacks on areas held by the regime. Also, Assad's forces want to cut off the rebels from their supply chains over the Turkish border, just a few kilometers from Idlib.

Syrians dig a grave to bury the bodies of victims of a a suspected toxic gas attack in Khan Sheikhun, a nearby rebel-held town in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, on April 5, 2017.
FADI AL-HALABI/AFP

Idlib is located midway between Aleppo and Hama highway, and to create territorial continuity between these two cities the regime must occupy the district, completing the occupation of northwest Syria.

But conventional warfare in such an extensive area for a considerable length of time is almost impossible for the tired, impoverished Syrian Army. Even Russian air assistance will have difficulty achieving this goal. It appears therefore that the Syrians opted for an unconventional weapon to pull it off. Chemical weapons have a broad striking range and most importantly, they generate terror and offer no escape.

It's possible that using them in Khan Sheikhoun rather than Idlib itself was intended to force the rebel forces out of their hiding places in Idlib’s periphery and flee to the city itself, thus playing into the regime’s hands.

Another possibility is that the chemical weapons attack was intended to make the periphery residents turn against the rebels and drive them out of the villages and into the city. This strategy could lean on the internal confrontations among the various militias.

These militias now remain without international backing, especially after the Trump administration stopped the aid to militias that weren’t taking part in the fighting against the Islamic State, and has recently decided that toppling Assad is no longer a preferred American goal.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey are still providing some aid to some militias in Idlib, but too little to provide logistic infrastructure even for military survival, let alone a victory.

Several Arab states have also turned a cold shoulder to the rebels. While they sharply attacked the chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun, most of them didn’t name Assad as the one responsible. Egypt said the attack shows how crucial a diplomatic solution is, without mentioning Assad, Russia or Iran. One can only assume the Egyptian statement was based on President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi’s meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday.

Assad has placed the international community in a quandary. How can it respond to the chemical attack without really responding to it? In other words, how can it place responsibility on Russia’s ally without running into a Russian veto and committing to military action against Assad’s regime?

Meanwhile, Assad may succeed in making chemical weapons “acceptable,” as though they were conventional weapons.