Time is running out to find a political solution for Idlib. Hopes had rested on Turkey, with Russia's backing, to resolve two major issues that could have prevented a bloody recapture of the rebels' last stronghold in Syria. Neither, however, seems to have been successful.
The easier of the two tasks would have been to transform armed Islamic rebel groups, such as the Ahrar al-Sham and Suqour al-Sham, into pragmatic opposition groups that could have been seen by those in Damascus and Russia as "non-terrorist" interlocutors. Those who had not fully devoted themselves to the jihad ideology could have been reintegrated into Syrian society. But it has become apparent that Turkey does not have control over these groups, as was previously assumed.
A much more difficult challenge remains: dealing with the wide array of Islamic extremists and jihadis in Idlib, estimated to number more than 10,000. They will continue to enjoy the sympathies of the local civilian populations as long as they act as their "protectors."
The core of jihadis in Idlib is made up of the Syrian branch of al-Qaida, for a long time known as the Nusra Front and now called Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham. Their heartland has always been Idlib, and their fighters will not give up here as quickly as they recently did in Daraa and Ghouta. As the largest fighting group, they will also form the backbone of resistance to the Syrian regime's offensive, especially once smaller groups join the battle-hardened jihadis in their struggle for survival.
Nobody wants extremists to escape
Turkey was unable to persuade the Nusra Front, or smaller groups such as Hurras al-Din, to surrender and lay down their weapons. It's unlikely that external players want to see these jihadis escape and end up in Turkey or Europe, Russia or China, where they could continue their acts of terror.
This time it's not up to the United States to wage war against al-Qaida, as was the case in Afghanistan. Now it will most likely be Russia and Iran taking on the fight — and they'll also have to bear the political costs.
These hardcore jihadis will not give up without a prolonged fight, meaning the battle for Idlib will last longer and be bloodier than previous encounters. And it will be the civilian population that pays the price.