The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is preparing to launch a large-scale military operation within the demilitarized zone around the northern governorate of Idlib, the Syrian al-Watan newspaper, which is known for its close ties with the Damascus government, reported on May 1.
The 15-20km zone was established last September under a Russian-Turkish agreement designed to stabilize the situation in Idlib by peaceful measures. The agreement prevents terrorist groups from having any presence within the zone. However, earlier this year the former branch of al-Qaeda in Syria, known as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), imposed control of the entire zone following a series of clashes with Turkish-backed militants.
According to al-Watan, the SAA deployed several offensive units around the demilitarized zone over the last few days. These units, which are reportedly from the elite Tiger Forces, are expected to lead the upcoming operation.
The deployment of these units coincided with intense Russia and Syria strikes on terrorists’ positions in Idlib and its surroundings, especially the northern Hama countryside.
Despite these preparations, its remains unclear if Moscow would green light such a military operation. During his recent visit to China, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin stressed that a ground operation in Idlib “is not expedient now.”
“I don’t rule it [a military operation in Idlib] out, but right now we and our Syrian friends consider that to be inadvisable given this humanitarian element,” Putin told reporters during a press conference in Beijing on April 27, according to the Moscow Times.
Last week, a spokesman for the Syrian opposition revealed that Russia and Turkey are planning to conduct joint patrols around Idlib very soon in order to de-escalate the tension. This also indicates that Moscow has not given up on the demilitarized zone agreement yet.
The SAA and its allies are likely preparing for the worst case scenario. The failure of the joint patrol plan could indeed encourage Moscow to support a military solution that would deter the remaining terrorist in Idlib, if not completely neutralize the threat.