Idlib: Rebels factions' last major stronghold in Syria


The province of Idlib in northwest Syria is the last stronghold for armed groups in the country. As a result of the various evacuation agreements between the groups and the Syrian Arab Army, 11 different factions all exist within the confines of the province.

Following the recapture of East Ghouta and the southern provinces of Daraa and Quneitra earlier this year, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies have turned their attention to the last major rebel-held region in Syria, Greater Idlib. Until now, no major offensive is currently underway in the region. Nonetheless, SAA reinforcements, including its elite Tiger Forces, have been amassing in the Ghab Plains in northern Hama, western Aleppo and eastern Latakia Province. The mobilisation of government forces has raised the prospect of an all-out offensive in the region and consequently tensions have continued to rise amongst the opposition forces within Idlib, as well as between the Turkish, Russian and Syrian Governments.

According to some reports, more than 100,000 rebel and militant fighters are currently active in the region. Since mid-2017, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) have also maintained a presence in the region as monitors to the Astana de-escalation agreement. However, more recently, the TSK have taken a greater role of oversight in the region, encouraging the expansion of the Free Syrian Army (FSA)-affiliated National Liberation Front (NLF) rebel coalition and have called for the disbanding of the militant coalition, Hayy’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), who are exempt from the de-escalation agreement.

Other major factions in the region include the Turkish-backed FSA Syrian National Army (SNA); the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), representing the Syrian branch of the central-Asian Uyghur jihadist group; Tanzim Hurras al-Din, a former HTS faction that retains its affiliation to al-Qaeda; Jaish al-Izza, an FSA-affiliated group in northern Hama; and ISIS, which maintain a presence but do not hold any territorial control.

Throughout the Syrian conflict, Greater Idlib has received numerous rebel and militant fighters as a result of evacuation agreements struck between individual factions and the Syrian Government. However, many non-combatants, including women and children, were also evacuated to Greater Idlib which expanded the region’s population to more than three million people. Accordingly, the United Nations has warned that a military operation in the region could trigger the most severe humanitarian crisis since the Syrian Conflict began in 2011. Likewise, during a meeting in Ankara earlier this month, the Turkish and Russian Foreign Ministers both stated that a military solution to the Idlib situation would be a disaster. Attempts to broker a peace deal in the region have continued, including at the Sochi Peace Talks. However, the complex geopolitical nature of the situation has so far thwarted any tangible progression to the talks.