Why Putin and Assad are preparing to attack Idlib city before Biden takes office

Vladimir Putin and Syrian dictator Bashar Assad appear to be preparing an imminent final offensive against the last rebel holdouts in Idlib city. Any attack will both be designed to cause, and incidentally cause, heavy civilian casualties.

Evincing the looming offensive, Syrian regime/proxy and Russian military forces have spent the past few days in heavy artillery shaping operations toward rebel-held areas of the M-4 highway. They’re likely hoping to secure this highway around the town of Ariha, so as to then gain access to the route 60A road and its short 8 mile run north to Idlib city. That would enable regime forces to surround and then compress the city’s inhabitants with massive air and artillery strikes.

I believe the rationale for carrying out an Idlib city operation now is twofold.

First, and most important, it’s the money. In particular, Putin and Assad’s vested interest in effectively crushing the rebellion before Joe Biden takes office as president. Russia is incurring military and financial costs in Syria that it would have wished to curtail years ago. At the same time, Assad’s regime is creaking under the weight of European and, in particular, U.S. sanctions that have crippled his economy. The economic-political crisis in Lebanon has further exacerbated these concerns, in that the Lebanese banking institutions had provided a two-way capital flow to Damascus. But Putin has good reason to think that a Democratic presidency and House, and a Republican-controlled Senate would introduce further sanctions on Damascus and Moscow — especially if they move to carry out a bloody attack on Idlib. For whatever reason, President Trump appears to have abandoned his prior constraint of Russian aggression in Syria.

Unfortunately, any attack on Idlib city will be brutal.

Syrian and Russian tactics involve the deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure. The intent of these strikes is to offer the rebels a binary choice between civilian suffering and surrender. In turn, an excellent sign that the final offensive is imminent will be the escalated targeting of civilian hospitals, ambulances, markets, and schools in Idlib city. Again, however, seeing as this kind of military action does not play terribly well in Western capitals, Putin has an interest in getting the bloodletting done in a situation before sanctions become more likely.

Then there’s the Recep Tayyip Erdogan factor.

For a number of different reasons, the increasingly ludicrous wannabe Sultan has managed to simultaneously alienate America and the European Union. But the Turkish president has also now burned his always tentative bridges with Putin. Previously avoiding a full assault on Idlib in order to keep Erdogan happy — the Turkish leader likes to present himself as the leader of Sunni Muslims, and thus their guardian in Idlib — Putin has less incentive to do so now. The Russians were particularly aggravated by Erdogan’s fueling of Azerbaijan’s recent war effort against Armenia. Where all other external parties were pushing for a ceasefire, Erdogan was actively pushing Azerbaijan to keep up the fight. Partly in retaliation for that activity, but also in frustration that the Syrian rebellion remains active, Putin has spent the past few weeks steadily escalating against Turkish interests around Idlib.

Put simply, as they have throughout this nine-year civil war, Syrian civilians will suffer the most in what’s to come.

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