As Syria's Bashar Assad regime signals an offensive to northwestern Idlib province, the last major bastion of Syria's political and military opposition, experts highlight that a major offensive targeting the whole province and opposition that is part of the Astana process might mean fueling new dynamics for conflict and a return to the beginning of the civil war. Oytun Orhan, a Syria expert, stated that the regime considers Idlib as its last target and underscored that "launching a large-scale offensive would mean igniting new dynamics for conflict." Commenting on underlying reasons for that, Orhan said, "The number of armed groups as well as civilian population are high in Idlib.
Within the framework of the de-escalation agreement there are 12 observation posts and Turkish soldiers are on the ground, which creates the risk of confrontation in a possible operation targeting the area."
After retaking control of swathes of opposition-held territory in the Idlib region, the Assad regime recently signaled that the Idlib province will be the main target, which has raised concerns regarding the safety of civilians and the moderate opposition.
In an operation, despite a balancing role by Russia, which is the main backer of Assad, the regime might move to take independent steps and target the moderate oppositions which would lead to the collapse of the Astana process launched by Russia, Turkey and Iran, Orhan stated.
The potential of an attack in Idlib also raises concerns for the security and safety of more than 3 million people living in the region. It has been argued that an offensive might spur on a new wave of refugees.
Orhan added that "the situation in Idlib is more complex than the other de-escalation zones and therefore he added that a large-scale offensive in which all Idlib is targeted would be avoided.
In an effort to restore calm in the region and improve the humanitarian situation in war-torn Syria, three guarantor states Turkey, Iran, and Russia launched the Astana process on Jan. 23, 2017, establishing de-escalation zones.
Murat Yeşiltaş, a security expert for the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) stated that "Russia needs to be a balancing instrument since it does not want the political process to collapse. Yet, at the same time it is also highly disturbed by the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Idlib. In a possible offensive on Idlib the regions where HTS exists would be a main target." Ankara has long been warning different sides that an offensive would cause a catastrophe in Idlib. With an aim of discussing the current situation regarding the Syrian conflict, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and the head of National Intelligence Organization (MİT) Hakan Fidan paid a visit to Russia to meet Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Aug. 16.
On Aug. 14, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu underscored Turkey's humanitarian concerns in a joint press meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov saying that "It would be catastrophic to bomb the whole of Idlib; hospitals and schools [to kill terrorists]. The moderate opposition and terrorists need to be separated from each other."
In the conference, Lavrov reiterated support for the regime to fight against terrorists and stressed the difficulty of separating terrorists from members of the moderate opposition.
The U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, said recently that a battle for Idlib province between regime forces and the opposition could affect the lives of more than 1 million children, many of whom live in refugee camps.
UNICEF said food, water, and medicine are already in short supply in the largely rural northwestern province, now home to over 1 million Syrians who have been displaced from their homes by regime offensives across the country.
The agency said a battle for Idlib, would exacerbate an already dire humanitarian situation, and potentially displace 350,000 children. Other U.N. officials have also drawn attention to the issue recently, saying the possible attack on Idlib could lead to a new wave of refugees moving towards Turkey. Turkey, which has been hosting over 3.5 million Syrian refugees, calls on actors on the ground to take humanitarian concern into consideration before launching an offensive.