Experts are discussing what is believed to be the activity of Russian special forces in the Syrian province of Idlib, which is still controlled by opposition forces. According to local sources, Russian special forces have been conducting “anti-terrorist raids” against Ahrar al-Sham. Russia previously tried to establish dialog with this group. The reports, if correct, seem to indicate that the group’s fate has been decided.
Reports that 16 Ahrar al-Sham fighters had been killed caused widespread discussion. The raid, which proved fatal to members of the group, has been attributed to Russian special forces by the local media. According to preliminary reports, the division attacked the militants’ position between the towns of Qasabiye and Hursh-Abdin in southern Idlib. Sources linked to Ahrar al-Sham have confirmed the losses. One of the casualties was the influential field commander Basil al-Khatib, also known as Abu Dahdah. A successful hit job against a Jaysh al-Nasr field commander and two of his bodyguards in north-western Hama has also been attributed to the Russians. However, it remains unclear why Russia would need to interfere with the situation on the ground. Observers have several theories.
In mid July, after the armed encounters in southern Idlib and northern Hama in north-western Syria, western news agencies reported that the Russian military command had deployed its special forces in this area. Citing sources in the Syrian opposition, Reuters drew attention to the fact that the Russian forces were apparently deployed after the Syrian government army failed to carry out a successful operation against the opposition. As expected, the Russian Defense Ministry denied that Russian ground and special forces had been involved in combat in Idlib, dismissing the reports as fake news. According to several agreements signed by Turkey and Russia in 2017, the Russian military police may secure the perimeter of the agreed Idlib de-escalation zone, but that is all.
The presence of Russian military police and advisors in Syria, which Moscow officially acknowledges, generally serves as a cover for the activity of other forces. News.ru has repeatedly reported that the Russian military is involved in a restructuring of the Syrian government army and security departments. Experts believe that this is partially related to the fight against corruption, but also aimed to prevent an increase in Iranian influence. The fighting in Aleppo demonstrates that both Russian military advisors and other divisions of the Russian army, such as military engineers, can be involved in combat. However, there is no official data on this. When Russian President Vladimir Putin declared “victory” in Syria and announced the withdrawal of all Russian troops, apart from the “advisors”, it was clear that the Russian military campaign in Syria was far from over.
It is believed that Russia’s ultimate goal in the Syrian conflict is to drive the Syrian opposition into a corner and force them to negotiate with the government and undergo “rehabilitation”. At the same time, Russia is believed to be exerting influence over the leadership of the Syrian army and security departments.
The reports of Russian special operations in Idlib could indicate several trends. The confident offensive operations by the government army in Idlib and the fierce clashes with Turkish forces partly indicates that the province’s fate has already been decided. The rebel enclave is probably not particularly important to Turkey, apart from being considered an instrument of major change. More
important to Ankara are the northern parts of Syria that share a border with Turkey. It is possible that a certain part of the province will be given to the government army, and another part to the “filtered” opposition. Russia could act as an international guarantor, establishing a buffer zone between the opponents.