According to an analysis by the American website Al-Monitor published today, the fragile ceasefire in Idlib - which had been in place since early March when a Turkish-Russian deal ended a violent escalation - is teetering on the brink of collapse, amid mounting indications that the government is preparing for a new move to control the mercenaries' stronghold.
The truce largely continued despite sporadic violations, as Turkey and Russia conducted more than 25 joint patrols along the road since the March 5th agreement, but these patrols failed to control the international road, and the road to transportation and trade was not re-opened. The plan failure was due to the extremist groups who skillfully disguise themselves among the area's population and enjoy the support of some locals.
Since nearly a month, the government forces have been increasing their military build-up south of Idlib, and many see this as a precursor of an upcoming attack to cleanse Sahl al-Ghab and Jabal al-Zawiya regions of mercenaries which control southern Idlib, and establish a strong grip on the cleared area.
While the precursor of an imminent ground attack appeared, Russian warplanes targeted several areas in northeastern Lattakia governorate and Bennesh in eastern Idlib on August 2th -3rd, along with artillery and missile fire targeting Sahl al-Ghab and Jabal al-Zawiya. Russian and government forces frequently used the air and artillery attacks to pave the way for ground attacks and force the civilians to flee.
A possible ground operation to secure the M4 highway could unfold in three phases:
In the first stage, the process will definitely start from the south and aim at clearing Sahl al-Ghab and Jabal al-Zawiya, as without clearing and securing Sahl al-Ghab and Jabal al-Zawiya, the government forces cannot advance further to the north.
In the second stage, the operation is likely to expand to the northwest of Jabal al-Akrad and Jisr al-Shughur. By dominating Jisr al-Shughur, the government forces aim to cut off the mercenaries' contact with Turkey.
Unless they block this road which is used by the militants for logistical, financial and recruitment purposes, the regime cannot completely close the borders with Turkey and start the blockage war, and the domination of Jisr al-Shughour will also be crucial for securing the highland that controls the northeast of Lattakia.
In the third and final stage, the attack is likely to extend to the northeast of Jabal al-Arbeen and Jericho, which is the direction that leads directly to Idlib city, as Jabal al-Arbeen is a crucial area overlooking the south of Idlib, while Jericho is a major city linking Idlib with the south and southeast.
As for Turkey's acceptance of such an operation, it can be said that Moscow may persuade Ankara to calm down, but in the event that an attack begins without Turkey's approval, the Jericho-Saraqeb axis is very important in this regard, and Turkey may try to disrupt and slow down the regime forces supported by Russia, in such a scenario, the mercenaries of Hayet Tahrir al-Sham - the dominant armed group in Idlib - and its allies are likely to launch counter-attacks along the Jericho-Saraqeb axis with Turkish support.
Local sources contacted by Al-Monitor say that they believe that Ankara may surrender to the regime forces regarding the latter's control of Sahl al-Ghab and Jabal al-Zawiya in return for certain gains in Libya, and this scenario is the biggest concern in the areas controlled by mercenaries in Idlib.
For Ankara, in the meantime, the real concern appears to be the possibility of advancing the regime forces to the second and third stages described above, which will be encouraged by the successful completion of the offensive on Sahl al-Ghab and Jabal al-Zawiya.
The retreat of mercenaries from these two areas means the automatic fall of a heavily fortified mountain enclave, and this will be a major setback for the mercenaries in Idlib. As a result, the western front of Jisr al-Shughur and the eastern front of Jericho will be easily separated, which will facilitate the regime forces' seizure of the southern heights that control Idlib city.
In the event that Jabal al-Zawiya and Sahl al-Ghab are lost - an area with only two main roads - the mercenaries will be subjected to indirect fire by the regime forces, including artillery, howitzers, and rocket launchers, in addition to air strikes. Thus, the mercenaries may be obliged to retreat towards the north to the locations near Jabal al-Akrad without resistance.
Once these goals are achieved, a ceasefire will likely be held for a short period of one or two months, allowing the regime forces to prepare to march south of Jisr al-Shughur and then to Jabal al-Akrad and Jericho, and in general, Idlib appears to be heading towards a critical juncture in September and October.