The brutal war in Syria has killed more than half a million people and displaced millions more. Image Credit: AP

Beirut: With his decision to make a final push to retake Idlib province, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad is walking a perilous line between risking retaliation from neighbouring Turkey and saving his economy and moving closer to restoring the nation’s territorial integrity.

At its heart, the offensive against Turkish-backed rebels and Al Qaida militants reflects Al Assad’s long-held desire to rebuild Idlib as a bridge to reconnect Aleppo, once the nation’s productive engine, to the capital, Damascus, and coastal areas. That’s become especially vital with his economy screaming under the impact of almost a decade of war, sanctions and neighbouring Lebanon’s financial crisis.

Retaking Idlib could mark a tentative start to rebuilding an economy that the United Nations estimates needs more than $250 billion in aid – the kind of money its wartime allies, Iran and Russia, can’t provide. In the past year, the value of the Syrian pound has almost halved to 1,000 to the dollar.

“Al Assad has wanted to expand his territorial control in Idlib and Aleppo to primarily settle the conflict and regain trade connections between Aleppo and the rest of the country,” said Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North Africa research at the Eurasia Group. “The importance of that has grown over time, especially with the problems in Lebanon.”

Timing has been key. Russia’s commitment to provide air cover for pro-Damascus forces and President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Syrian theatre of operations gave Al Assad a green light to finish what he regards as a key step in physically reuniting the Syrian nation.

The danger of his strategy is plain in the current fighting. Turkish forces are pouring in to stave off the fall of Syria’s last major rebel stronghold. They’ve struck about 170 targets in Syria in retaliation for attacks by Syrian forces that killed at least 12 Turkish soldiers in the northwestern province this month.

However much Al Assad’s offensive has complicated relations between Turkey and Russia, President Vladimir Putin hasn’t eased support for Syria’s drive to eliminate Islamist militant groups in Idlib. Turkey stationed troops in the province under a 2017 deal with Russia and Iran to curtail fighting there and prevent a new exodus of refugees from heading towards its border.

Talks with a Russian delegation in Ankara on Saturday and Monday yielded no tangible results, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Putin may meet to discuss the situation, Turkish authorities said. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said there are no plans so far for such a meeting, but that the situation “concerns the Kremlin.”

While Moscow is willing to mediate between Turkey and the Syrian government to avoid “unnecessary clashes” between them, said Elena Suponina, a Moscow-based Middle East expert, “Ankara will have to accept the fact that Syrian troops have taken back a number of key locations in Idlib province and these troops won’t withdraw.”

And as the human cost of the campaign has risen, Al Assad has little choice to persist until he’s re-established control, according to a European diplomat in the region.

When Turkey told Syria to withdraw in the initial days of the offensive, the response was: too many soldiers have been sacrificed; it is impossible to turn back, the diplomat said.

“Damascus never budged in its desire to regain ‘every inch of Syria’,” said Dareen Khalifa, a senior analyst on Syria at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. “Idlib is no exception to that.”

Confronting pro-Turkish forces also has another payoff for Al Assad: potentially warmer ties with the Gulf nations, which see Turkey as a threat because of its support for Islamist militant groups.

“He’s become quite useful on containing the Turks,” said Kamel. “Syria under Al Assad is a buffer state.”