A ticking bomb: Idlib

Published 09.02.2020 17:03
Updated 10.02.2020 18:13

Seven Turkish soldiers and one civilian were killed in shelling by Syria’s Assad regime forces near Saraqeb, an opposition-held town in northwestern Idlib. A Turkish observation point is near this flashpoint town. In retaliation, some Assad soldiers were killed by Turkish shelling in the region. The Turkish defense minister said Turkish forces hit 54 targets in Idlib and “neutralized” 76 regime troops. The blood of Turkish martyrs did not remain on the ground.

The Syrian regime has been trying to enter the strategic southwestern town of Saraqib after it took Maarat al-Numan located some 32 kilometers away from the city center of Idlib, under the cover of heavy airstrikes by Russia last week. Both towns sit on the Damascus-Aleppo M5 highway, which is one of Syria’s economic arteries. While Maarat al-Numan is the second most populated town in Idlib province, Saraqib is also near the junction of the key M5 highway and M4 highway, the other strategic Latakia-Aleppo road.

Following the capture of Maarat-al Numan, the regime advanced over the M5 highway. In order to control all of the M5 and start to focus on M4, the regime has to continue its advance and did not hesitate to kill 300 civilians since December and displaced 520,000. A Jan. 12 cease-fire deal between Turkey and Russia has not stopped the regime’s campaign.

Three Turkish observation posts have come under siege, and the recent regime advances have put Turkish troops in danger. While the regime is close to Saraqib, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) had to increase its observation posts and send reinforcements. Temporary military bases and observation points were established in four different locations in Saraqib behind the regime’s lines. Bolstering its security on the M4 and M5 artery roads, military convoys of vehicles crossed the border into northwestern Syria.

This last escalation to control Idlib marks a rare confrontation between Turkish and regime’s forces. It means a new era has began in Syria. Before this, the regime had been targeting civilians and bombing cities while getting help from Russian forces, and it had been trying to advance in Idlib. But now, we are in a new period as the regime deliberately attacked Turkish forces and killed eight Turks, seven of whom are soldiers. This is a big breaking point that signals that the structure of clashes in Idlib will change. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said, “Nothing can continue like this where Turkish soldiers’ blood is spilled.” What the Assad regime dared to do is a game changer in Syria.

A few days before this heinous attack, Erdoğan had signaled that Turkey would launch a military operation in Idlib unless fighting there was quickly halted, as an exodus has shaken the region and hundreds of thousands of Syrians are again forced to flee their lands and pushed toward the Turkish border to escape the fast-moving advance of regime troops now.

The reality in the region

Actually, for a long time, maybe since the beginning, we have all been aware of the fact that Idlib is the place where the fighting came to a head. Turkey and Russia have been trying to delay the unavoidable.

In addition to the huge refugee influx risk, the killing of Turkish forces now means that Turkey’s national security has been directly threatened. If the status quo in Idlib that was reached by the Sochi agreement between Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin is not protected, Turkey, the country that is extremely affected by the fighting in Syria, will have to protect its interests by any means. The Assad forces’ disruptive attack has clearly violated the terms of the Astana and Sochi agreements, which are also committed to ensure the national security of Turkey.

This is the most crucial and direct attack toward Turkish forces in Idlib by the regime forces, but it is not the first one. As we recall, Syrian regime airstrikes hit positions in Morek near a Turkish convoy in the summer on Aug. 19. Turkey strongly condemned the attack emphasizing that it contradicted the existing agreements, cooperation and dialogue with Russia. Since the threats from the Assad regime increased, deployment of Turkish forces started on Aug. 19 to keep the supply routes open, to ensure the safety of Turkish observation posts and to prevent further loss of civilian/innocent lives in the region.

Holding Russia responsible for not leashing the regime, Turkey accused regime forces of violating existing deals with Moscow, which were signed to save civilians' lives and to avoid another humanitarian tragedy in Syria. In August, stating that Turkey reserves its right to retaliate, Ankara gave a message to Moscow: Turkey will continue to back Syrian opposition forces and will not hesitate, no matter what, to stop another refugee influx to Turkish borders.

A Turkish observation post is in Morek, close to Khan Sheikhoun, a city in southern Idlib, which is strategically important along with Morek, as both are on the M5 highway. And it was obvious that, after Khan Sheikhun, the next target of the regime would be Maarat al-Numan.

Non-stop attacks

Turkey has 12 observation posts along the Idlib border under the Astana agreement, which was reached between Ankara, Moscow and Tehran in September 2017. Also, Erdoğan and his counterpart Putin agreed on Sept. 18, 2018, to establish a demilitarized zone through the border of Idlib province that would be around 15-20 kilometers wide.

Despite those agreements, the Syrian regime hasn't stopped attacking southern Idlib, escalating violence gradually since the end of 2018. However, recent attacks have increasingly reached a worrying level every day.

That said, the airstrike in August was not the only one targeting the Turkish military or official personnel in Idlib before this week’s attack. On June 27, the Syrian regime hit an area located near a Turkish observation post in Idlib twice in two hours. Regime forces attacked a Turkish observation post in the Zawiya region with artillery and mortar fire. One Turkish soldier was killed, and three others were wounded during the shelling.

It was the sixth such attack near a Turkish observation post, in addition to those reported on April 29, May 4, May 12, May 31 and June 8.

As a guarantor state for the Assad regime, Russia is the one and only country that can prevent the regime and Iran-backed militia attacks, but Russia's position in Syria has been fluctuating for awhile. The Syrian regime was expecting Russian support for a long time for its assaults in Idlib, where over 3 million civilians are stranded, since taking control of the province would be a victory for Bashar Assad. It was obvious that that kind of support would jeopardize the Sochi deal, which lashed both the Syrian regime and its other supporter Iran into fury. The Russian support that the Syrian regime waited for since 2018 materialized in the last six months. Russia wants the Assad regime to control Idlib. However, that didn’t mean that the Russian president was eager to do so militarily – until August.

Moscow's stance started to change in mid-spring. According to Russia, this situation in Idlib and other areas where terrorists are still active cannot stay like this forever. But the problem is that for the Assad regime, every opposition member is a terrorist.

The Sochi agreement on Idlib also gave Moscow a chance to play a new foreign policy game with Ankara, which has disturbed Turkey's NATO allies. This deal brought Moscow and Ankara closer than before on different matters, such as the S-400 deal and TurkStream and other bilateral and military cooperation deals. However, starting in May, Idlib became an area where Russia and Turkey has arm wrestled although they eagerly continue to work together on other issues. Ever since, Russia has been trying to push Turkey into a tight corner.

Deal or no deal?

In the meantime, Turkey is not just stepping back from the terms of the deal but it is also responding to Russia's active support to the regime – as ensuring the terms of the deal is not a walk in the park, especially as the Syrian regime increases its assaults.

The regime attacks that started in May were the first operation that made Russia's position clear. In response, Turkey supplied anti-tank and grad missiles to opposition groups against the regime and made it clear that it would protect its interests in Syria.

As I said, it was obvious that implementing the Sochi deal and removing terrorist elements would not be easy. The population of Idlib province has reached almost 3 million with Syrians fleeing bloody clashes and bombings in Aleppo, Hama and Homs, which is why the Turkish military has avoided using its firepower.

Even though Turkey has not taken the responsibility for eliminating terrorist elements in Idlib, it has been accused of giving them space in the province. And yet, it has been trying to use its influence on the opposition groups. Turkey had already been getting results with regards to eliminating extremist groups inside Idlib. Avoiding internal clashes that would risk the lives of civilians, Turkey has been pressuring mainstream opposition groups to join forces and challenge the Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) and others. By uniting opposition groups, Turkey pushed them to confront the HTS and Huras al Din, which was already unpopular among Idlib's civilians. The opposition started to get results, repelling the terrorists. They took control of many critical points, including highly populated towns in the province.

The regime's attacks, however, helped the terrorists regain power to retake control of positions it had lost. Since the Assad regime's attacks on Idlib started, the internal situation in Idlib began to change as well. In other words, the HTS has moved ahead of the opposition groups inside Idlib because of the Syrian regime's wide-scale operations violating the Sochi deal and the Astana process. But this has never been a problem for the Syrian regime. On the contrary, it is a plus as Damascus sees all opposition groups as terrorists. So it was great to put them into one basket with the extremists again and increase its anti-propaganda.

If the attacks of the regime is not stopped, the arm wrestling in Syria can cost a wide-scale military operation. It looks like Turkey is already ready to take military action to avoid a devastating regime offensive, which would cause thousands of deaths and millions of displaced. Turkey did this three times in northern Syria with is ground operations since 2016.

So, the question is, "What will Russia do?" as the Kremlin has tried to push Ankara into the corner but couldn't get the results it's been seeking. Russia is also pressured by the regime and Iran as they allege that Turkey has failed to implement the terms of the Sochi deal. In addition, regime forces cannot advance without Russia’s support due to the changing strategy of Turkey and the resistance of groups Ankara backs. Without Russia’s support, the regime did not get the results it wanted in its Hama and Idlib campaign last year, and its losses were huge.

It seems clear that the regime will not stop without capturing the M4 and M5 highways. If this happens, nearly 3 million civilians in Idlib will be trapped in a third of Idlib province. Will Russia throw the Astana de-escalation zone and the Sochi demilitarized agreement into the trash ignoring the lives of 3 million civilians? Will it choose the easiest way and bombard Idlib as it did in other parts of Syria where it supported the Assad regime?

Threatening Turkey with torpedoing Idlib would put maximum pressure on Ankara and put Turkish observation posts at huge risk, as the regime desperately needs to seize control of the M4 and M5 highways. That would make Russia the side that breaks the Sochi deal and the Astana agreement. Will the Kremlin jeopardize such progress? Also, there are a lot of agreements between Russia and Turkey. Disregarding Turkey’s national security would damage the relationship between two countries. Does Moscow want to do that?

To be honest, Moscow seems to have no choice but to sit down at the table with Turkey to adjust the Sochi deal; that is, only if the Kremlin cares about the Astana process and the Sochi deal. Otherwise, Ankara and Damascus will eventually confront each other on the field.

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