Russia and Syria have started carrying out air raids on the rebels entrenched within the northern province of Idlib. These aerial attacks are a precursor to the imminent ground assault by Syrian troops and its allied militias against the last remaining stronghold of the insurgents. Despite protests from the United Nations and various Western governments, Damascus and its allies — Tehran and Moscow — seem to have decided to go ahead with the offensive and bring an end to the rebellion once and for all. Turkey, another important player in the region, wants a postponement of the Idlib offensive in order to protect its own strategic interests within the besieged territory. Towards the end of March 2016, rebels in Idlib numbered around 90,000 out of which 50,000 were full-time combatants and the rest were non-professional fighters who had taken up arms against the regime. Over the course of the next two years, this number was markedly inflated by fighters who were expelled from fallen rebel-held territories in Ghouta, Aleppo, Rastan and Daraa. The rebels in Idlib are divided into two main groups that are more or less equal in numbers and strength: Hayat-Tahrir-al-Sham (HTS) and the National Liberation Front (NLF). HTS is the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda and the NLF is a loosely tied network of several rebel factions including the remnants of the Free Syrian Army, Al-Zinki Brigade and Ahrar al-Sham. The NLF is backed by Turkey. Turkey’s main objective of setting up the National Liberation Front was to undermine the influence of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Idlib and diminish the group’s ability to take complete control of the area. Since the fall of 2017, there have been many clashes between the HTS and the pro-Turkish NLF leading to the division of the rebel pocket into two distinct territories controlled by each group. The HTS controls the northern part of Idlib and the border with Turkey. The southern part of the territory and the western flank of Aleppo are dominated by the NLF. Idlib’s provincial capital is firmly in the hands of the HTS. At present, the Turkey-backed NLF in the southern part of Idlib is at the front line of the Syrian Army’s imminent offensive. Its rear is flanked by the HTS which has made it impossible for Turkey to reinforce it with men and ammunition. Getting rid of the Turkey-based NLF at the beginning of the offensive will offer Damascus with a unique opportunity to eliminate any semblance of a moderate opposition that, at some later point in time, may challenge the regime’s legitimacy In the long run, Damascus intends to take over the entire Idlib region, however, it will not try to take on both the NFL and the HTS simultaneously. The Syrian army will focus on the southern region through a limited ground offensive in order to deal with the NFL first. This would cut the Idlib province into half with the Turkey-backed rebels sandwiched between Assad’s troops and the HTS. Rebels and civilians fleeing the ground offensive will still be able to find refuge in Jarabulus and Afrin which are under Turkish control. The Syrian army has used the same strategy in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and Daraa. First of all, it attacks and neutralises the weakest group, then it divides the target territory and begins separate negotiations with different factions within the area. In case of Idlib the same strategy would hinge on the neutrality of the HTS. The HTS, on the other hand, may see this as an opportunity to lay its claim over the entire Idlib region once the NLF is defeated by the Syrian Army. Turkey does not agree with this strategy since the brunt of the Syrian offensive will be borne by the rebels it backs. This will not go down well with Turkey’s local allies who will see this as a betrayal. Hence, Turkey has called for the postponement of the Idlib offensive. Russia and Damascus, on the other hand, maintain that Turkey has failed in its bid to eliminate the hardline HTS. It is now their responsibility to eliminate this radical faction from the enclave. Russia may offer some consolation to Turkey in the form of a go-ahead to attack Kurds in the north-east. However, this concession will be of little use to the Turks owing to the presence of American troops in the Kurdish areas. Getting rid of the Turkey-based National Liberation Front at the beginning of the offensive will offer Damascus with a unique opportunity to eliminate any semblance of a moderate opposition that, at some later point in time, may challenge the regime’s legitimacy. In fact, Bashar al Assad has been doing the same since the very beginning of the rebellion. First of all, it wipes out moderate rebels in the targeted area so that only the hardliners remain. This group prefers to either relocate or go down fighting. In any case, they have no political alternative and justify the regime’s brutal treatment. The initial ground offensive will commence in the south of Idlib. This will cause relatively lesser casualties, as civilians will have a choice of moving further north towards the Turkish border. The next offensive against HTS in the north will be more violent and may culminate into a humanitarian catastrophe. The regime and its allies maintain that they are up against hardliners including Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The same narrative has been used to destroy many rebel pockets. The carnage in Idlib has begun. In the coming days we may be watching Raqqa, Mosul and Aleppo happening all over again. The writer is an Investment Banker and has been written articles for several newspapers and magazines. Published in Daily Times, September 15th 2018.