Where will Syria's next battlefields be?
While the almost eight-year Syrian conflict appears to be nearing its end in a victory for the Syrian regime, there are still two major flash-points in the country that could potentially flare up and prolong the war.
The Syrian conflict has been winding down over the past year with the fewest people killed since its first year, all the way back in 2011. The 2018 death toll, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor, was 19,666.
"Most of those killed during the first part of the year were killed in regime and Russian bombardment of opposition areas, including Eastern Ghouta," Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman explained. "The majority of those killed in the second half of the year were killed in coalition air strikes."
In 2018, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reconquered two other opposition areas: East Ghouta in Damascus, in a characteristically bloody and brutal offensive, and Daraa in the south. The latter victory had largely symbolic value for Assad, since Daraa was where the initial uprising against his rule began in March 2011.
Entering 2019, two major areas remain outside Assad's control and could possibly become the sites of more bloodshed in the coming months. They are Idlib, a strategically important northwestern province controlled primarily by the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) al-Qaeda offshoot, and the provinces and regions that make-up eastern Syria, which are controlled by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Reclaiming these areas, either through more bloody conquests or some kind of diplomatic solution, will give Assad control over all of Syria once again.
It's for this simple reason that these two regions are important to follow in the coming months.
The roughly one-third of Syrian soil east of the famed Euphrates River includes Syria's predominantly Kurdish regions as well as the majority of the country's oil reserves.
The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) presently controls the vast majority of this area, having conquered many of the Arab-majority regions there from the Islamic State group over the course of the past four years, with US support.
Now US President Donald Trump wants to withdraw U.S. troops from the region. This has led to fears among these Kurdish-led forces that either Turkey, which considers the SDF as little more than a branch of its arch-enemy the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), or the Syrian regime, which wants to reassert its complete control over the entire country, might then attack.
The Kurdish leadership in eastern Syria has once again been negotiating with Damascus in hopes of reaching some agreement with the regime. It's unclear, however, if Assad will accept any settlement that permits them to retain any significant autonomy.
Since 2012, Syrian Kurdish autonomy has been de-facto and unrecognised. The Kurds, for their part, hope that at least giving control of the border with Turkey back to the regime could stave off a large-scale Turkish ground invasion.
IS has some remnants in eastern Syria. Beginning last September the SDF launched a large-scale and costly offensive against the group in its last redoubt in and around the Deir ez-Zour town of Hajin. IS managed to kill hundreds of SDF fighters before being driven from the town in mid-December.
Despite losing its self-styled caliphate, the United Nations estimated in August that IS still had about 30,000 members across Syria and Iraq, using guerrilla tactics now the group is once again a non-state actor. In Syria it estimated that there were still between 13,100 and 14,500 active IS members.
The Assad regime considers the SDF's control of Raqqa, IS' former capital city, and large swathes of Deir ez-Zour as an occupation. With the US withdrawal on the horizon, the regime will likely put more pressure on the SDF to relinquish its hold on these territories.
This has been anticipated for quite some time. "We won't be in Raqqa in 2020, but the regime will be there," one unarmed US official told The Wall Street Journal back in May 2017, five months before the SDF captured the city.
The strategically important northwest Idlib province has been in the hands of various opposition groups since they overran it from the regime in early 2015. Aside from Raqqa, Idlib was the only provincial capital in all of Syria over which the Assad regime lost complete control during the war. Also, like Raqqa, the area ultimately got taken over by jihadists.
In Idlib, the HTS group, formerly known as the Nusra Front, an infamous al-Qaeda offshoot, has dominated most of the province for almost two years, after it beat the Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sham group in July 2017.
|A major confrontation between Damascus and HTS over Idlib would likely amount to the bloodiest battle in the Syrian conflict since the final battle for East Aleppo back in late 2016|
Assad has been itching to reconquer Idlib, where approximately 3 million Syrians presently reside, about 1.2 million of whom having been displaced from elsewhere in the war-torn country. Turkey opposes any Damascus action to re-take the province, since it would likely trigger an enormous flow of refugees over the northern border, adding to Turkey's enormous existing population of more than three million Syrian refugees.
Consequently, Turkey reached a deal with Russia in September. Moscow successfully got Damascus to halt any offensive in Idlib in return for Ankara establishing a demilitarised zone in Idlib, reopening major Syrian highways and containing HTS.
Under the Russia-sponsored Astana Protocol, the Turkish Army established 12 observation posts around Idlib between October 2017 and May 2018 to monitor that ceasefire. Turkey also backs the Syrian National Liberation Front (NLF) militia that has been fighting HTS.
On January 10, however, the NLF reached a deal with HTS to end the fighting, which has given the al-Qaeda franchise more control over the province. In recent weeks HTS captured several villages from the NLF, expanding the territories under its control. If Turkey fails to reel them in, Assad may yet launch his much-desired offensive.
A major confrontation between Damascus and HTS over Idlib would likely amount to the bloodiest battle in the Syrian conflict since the final battle for East Aleppo back in late 2016.
Add to these two possible scenarios the likelihood that Israel will continue to launch airstrikes against Iran-related targets across Syria. Its latest airstrike was just last weekend. Israel Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu acknowledged that strike, claiming it was against "Iranian warehouses containing Iranian weapons in the Damascus International Airport".
"The accumulation of recent attacks shows that we're more determined than ever to act against Iran in Syria, just as we promised," he said, adding that Israel had targeted both Iran and Hizballah in Syria hundreds of times. Israel seldom acknowledges its airstrikes but is believed to have been bombing targets relating to Iran and its Hizballah proxy since at least January 2013.
In the first half of 2018, Israel struck several Iranian bases across Syria in a major escalation between the two adversaries.
Despite brief tensions with Russia over the September 18 shooting down of a Russian transport plane by Syrian anti-aircraft fire trying to hit attacking Israeli jets, Israel has continued its airstrikes on Syria and will, more likely than not, continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
Given how each of these situations could potentially escalate, 2019 may not be the year the war in Syria finally comes to an end.
Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.
Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon