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Another bloody chapter before the final battle in Idlib

Syrian citizens who were affected by attacks carried out by Russian warplanes over Saraqib district are seen, collecting their usable belongings, in the de-escalation zone of Idlib, Syria on 24 December 2019. [Hüseyin Fazıl - Anadolu Agency]
Syrian citizens who were affected by attacks carried out by Russian warplanes over Saraqib district are seen, collecting their usable belongings, in the de-escalation zone of Idlib, Syria on 24 December 2019. [Hüseyin Fazıl - Anadolu Agency]

It is indisputable that the current military operation carried out by Syrian regime forces with the support of the Russian air force, which began on 16 December and targets the opposition areas in north-west Syria, is just another chapter before the expected final battle in Idlib. However, it is certainly not the beginning of that battle, despite the intense, indiscriminate shelling, which has become the trademark of the forces loyal to the Syrian dictator and his Russian and Iranian allies. This is all part of a bloodied political approach and strategy to control opposition areas by bombing hospitals, schools and markets.

The final battle in Idlib will be difficult to carry out without a Turkey-Russia consensus, which is still under discussion. The dispute between the two countries over Libya has accelerated the escalation in north-west Syria, but it is not the main driver, so we are likely to witness another truce.

The latest military operation in the north-west has led to Syrian forces taking control of 46 villages in the region, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), getting close to the city of Maarat Al-Numan in southern Idlib province. The area has been subjected to more than two weeks of a bombing campaign by Syrian and Russian jets, coinciding with the advance of regime forces on the ground against opposition groups, particularly in the vicinity of Maarat Al-Numan, which is the second largest city in Idlib governorate.

READ: Over 49 Syria families take refuge in mosque to escape regime bombing of Idlib

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that between 12 and 25 December more than 235,000 people were displaced from north-west Syria. Many, noted UNOCHA, fled from Maarat Al-Numan and its surrounding villages and towns, all of which are now “almost empty of civilians.”

Determining the fate of north-west Syria in general, and the Idlib governorate in particular, is not possible without a consensus between Turkey and Russia, although both appear to be at odds on the Libyan and Syrian files: Moscow supports President Bashar Al-Assad in Syria, while Turkey stands behind the opposition; in Libya, Moscow supports Khalifa Haftar, while Ankara stands behind the Government of National Accord. However, for years they have shown great skill in managing such differences, given their largely conflicting interests in the Middle East.

According to Foreign Policy magazine, Russian and Turkish cooperation has limits. Although they will likely continue as partners, there will be many opportunities for the West and the US to take advantage of their differences, not least over the fate of Idlib. Both Turkey and the West have an interest in preventing any large-scale Russian attack in this governorate, as it could create a humanitarian catastrophe and push large numbers of refugees towards the Turkish border. Relations between Turkey and the West may have changed in recent years, but will not be cut, because Ankara’s relations with Moscow are at best loose.

Syrian families take shelter in a mosque at city center due to bombardments in Idlib, Syria on December 28, 2019. [Lale Köklü Karagöz - Anadolu Agency]

Syrian families take shelter in a mosque at city center due to bombardments in Idlib, Syria on December 28, 2019. [Lale Köklü Karagöz – Anadolu Agency]

The ongoing military operation is similar to last April’s in the demilitarised zone in the area around Idlib, Hama and Aleppo, when Syrian forces, with Russian support, launched a large-scale offensive. According to the SOHR, 1,000 civilians were killed, while the UN reported that nearly 400,000 people were displaced before a truce took effect at the end of August. Despite the ferocity of the current escalation, a comprehensive ground attack on Idlib is unlikely at the present time, given the high military, human and political cost as Russia sticks to its priority of maintaining relations with Turkey. Furthermore, Moscow prefers to move forward along the political path in Syria, and establish a committee to draft a new constitution for the country. The most that Russia wants now is to gain a foothold in Idlib in exchange for allowing Turkey to deepen its current area of control east of the Euphrates, but an all-out attack would derail the political process.

READ: Germany calls for permanent ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib

Idlib’s fate is likely to be determined during the visit of Russian leader Vladimir Putin to Ankara on 8 January. It is certain that Libya and Syria will form the core of agreed understandings and trade-offs, in light of Washington’s indifference and declining role in the region. According to the Washington Post, Turkish diplomats were this week calling on Russia to stop the bombing, while the US, which used to be the one doing the trade-offs with Moscow, is a bystander, although President Donald Trump warned Russia and Iran in a recent tweet about continuing to kill civilians in the Idlib area.

The relationship between Ankara and Moscow is based on trade-offs, which is why Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Qalin said last Tuesday that Russia will work to stop the attacks in Idlib following talks with a Turkish delegation in the Russian capital. He added that his country expects this to happen. Such an approach has been used since the Russian intervention in Syria in 2015, starting from Aleppo all the way to the understandings of 22 October, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Putin signed another deal in Sochi about Operation Well of Peace, east of the Euphrates, against Kurdish units. The fate of Idlib was also on the table; Russia allowed Turkey to carry out its operation in return for Russian gains in Idlib.

As Russia and Turkey were implementing their agreement on the safe zone in north-east Syria, reports emerged that Damascus was planning to launch another attack on the last of the opposition strongholds in Idlib governorate at the beginning of November. President Assad confirmed this. According to analyst Dmitry Minin, Syrian forces were concentrated in northern Latakia and Idlib along the Ghab Plain area in north-west Hama. More recently, the Syrian President has expanded the deployment, suggesting that all is ready for the next attack.

The current military operation in north-west Syria will seek to control the vital M5 and M4 roads to allow Damascus and Moscow a victory. According to the Russian newspaper Kommersant, the regime’s goal over the past few weeks was to reach the M5, one of the regime’s most important highways, as it links Damascus with Aleppo and passes through Homs, Idlib and Hama.

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It is still too early to talk about an all-out battle in Idlib, though, even if the theoretical basis for the operation was included in the understandings of Astana and Sochi, where commitments were made to get rid of terrorist-linked movements without distinguishing between the pragmatic local approach of Tahrir Al-Sham, for example, and the radical international approach represented by Guardians of Religion. Although there are ideological differences and strategic rivalries between the jihadist groups in north-west Syria, they do not lead to clashes, because military confrontation between jihadist groups is often linked to international agendas. This is still the case despite Tahrir Al-Sham’s efforts to present itself as a political force after imposing itself militarily, something that the Turks are trying to market to Russia, which insists that Idlib and the rest of the land return to Syrian sovereignty, either through a peace deal or war. The Sochi Agreement has thus postponed the issue of a war, but did not abandon it completely.

Nor can we talk about a final deal between Russia and Turkey yet. The meeting between Erdogan and Putin next week may produce understandings and trade-offs, but what matters to Turkey is to protect its national security and its interests. In Syria these are represented by preventing a Kurdish entity from being established on the border with Turkey, and ensuring the latter’s influence in Libya after signing a maritime and security agreement with the Government of National Accord.

According to some reports, Turkey is recruiting fighters from Idlib to go to Libya. Putin expressed concern last July about the infiltration in Libya of fighters from the region. That was at the same time that Erdogan expressed his own concerns about Russian-backed mercenaries supporting Haftar’s forces in Libya; he said then that Turkey would not remain silent.

Russia realises that Turkey is able to disrupt its operations in north-west Syria, and that the Astana and Sochi approach is the best way to reach agreements. This was evident after Russia refused to stop its attack, so Turkey gave support to opposition factions in the National Liberation Front, providing them with advanced weapons, which encouraged groups that had initially refrained from participating to engage in the battle. The Turkistan Islamic Party has reached the fronts around Maarat Al-Numan along with other jihadist factions, including the two largest armed groups in Idlib.

In conclusion, the current military operation carried out by Syrian regime forces with the support of the Russian air force is not the final battle for Idlib. The latter still depends entirely on trade-offs and understandings between Turkey and Russia. In the meantime, jihadist groups are gathering in the area after a series of complex discussions have led to a broad-based coalition of sorts.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 29 December 2019

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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