The battle for Aleppo has gripped the world, but it is hardly the only active front across war-torn Syria. One of the next targets for the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad will probably be the heartland of rebel territory, the neighboring province of Idlib. The province west of Aleppo is a stronghold of al-Qaida’s Syria affiliate and is now also packed with tens of thousands of rebels, many of them evacuated from other parts of the country, making it likely to be an even more bloody theater than Aleppo. Idlib has direct links to the Turkish border, and is located only a few kilometers north of Hama, a central province and key point for defending Assad’s coastal strongholds and nearby Russian military bases. Asked where he will turn to next, Assad has suggested his first priority, after fortifying the area around Aleppo city, would be Idlib. “Identifying which city comes next depends on which city contains the largest number of terrorists and which city provides other countries with the opportunity to support them logistically,” he told Russian media outlets in an interview in Damascus this week.
Currently, there are direct links between Aleppo and Idlib because of the presence of Jabhat al-Nusra inside and on the outskirts of Aleppo and in Idlib.
Syrian President Bashar Assad
The government’s loss of Jisr al-Shughour, in the westernmost corner of the province, and with it the whole of Idlib province, in the summer of 2015, was what prompted Russia to intervene to shore up Assad’s forces, eventually turning the war’s momentum back in his favor. For the past two years, as Assad pursued a policy of siege and local truces to force surrenders, thousands of rebels and opposition supporters have been deported to Idlib — a forced exile that many see as a calculated attempt to gather the fighters in one location where they can later be eliminated. The province has welcomed thousands of Islamic militants — with varying degrees of extremist ideology — who have converged along with their families from the central city of Homs and the suburbs of Damascus, after capitulating to government forces. It has become a common sight: Men receiving a hero’s welcome as they step off the green buses in Idlib with guns slung over their shoulders, having been forced to leave besieged and bombarded towns and cities.