Retaking Idlib

Print edition :

Syrians climb atop Turkish military vehicles as they attempt to block traffic on the M-4 highway, which links the Syrian provinces of Aleppo and Latakia, before the joint Turkish and Russian military patrols arrive, at al-Nayrab, about 14 km from Idlib on March 15. Photo: OMAR HAJ KADOUR/AFP

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the peace talks in Moscow, Russia, on March 5. Photo: Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

The Syrian army makes a concerted effort to liberate every inch of Idlib province from Turkish army-backed jehadi forces.

THE Syrian army, with the support of the Russian Air Force, made a concerted effort to drive out the last remnants of the jehadi forces from the north-eastern Idlib province in early February. It is the only Syrian province where the extremist forces are still holding out with the support of the Turkish Armed Forces. But the latest onslaught by the Syrian army has made their presence tenuous. The Syrian government was determined to liberate every inch of its territory and remove foreign fighters from its soil. 

The Syrian army launched an assault on Idlib in December 2019, signifying the collapse of the Sochi agreement of September 17, 2019. The army has been making a steady advance since then in the province. The Sochi agreement had called for the establishment of “de-escalation zones” separating the Syrian army from the rebel forces. Under the agreement, the Turkish Armed Forces was supposed to remove all “radical groups” from the province by October 15, 2019, along with tanks, rocket launchers and artillery under their control. Turkey had played a big role in the arming and training of the radical groups. Ankara failed to live up to any of the commitments it made in Sochi last year. 

That is why the Syrian government ordered its military to start the much-delayed process of liberating Idlib province. By early February, the Syrian army had surrounded many Turkish army posts within Idlib while inflicting heavy losses on the terrorist groups it was backing.

The Recep Tayyip Erdogan government, which had masterminded the abortive bid at regime change in Damascus with the open support of the West and the Gulf monarchies, is still attempting a rearguard battle to carve out an enclave in Idlib province to help provide sanctuary for terror groups that have refused the Syrian government’s offers of amnesty and safe passage. The most potent militant group in Idlib is the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, led by fighters who until a couple of years ago swore allegiance to Al Qaeda. The group has been designated as a “terrorist” outfit by the United Nations.

In the first week of March as fighting raged in Idlib, President Erdogan flew to Moscow to hold emergency peace talks with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. After more than six hours of talks, a ceasefire agreement on Idlib province was announced. Under the terms of the agreement, a “security corridor” is to be created to help civilians fleeing the conflict zone. The safe zone for civilians will be six kilometres wide and situated along the important M-4 highway. It will be jointly supervised by the Russian and Turkish militaries. 

The Syrian army had recaptured much of the highway and the key town of Saraqib during its recent offensive. Many observers of the region describe the battle for Saraqib as the first open confrontation between the armies of Turkey and Syria. Saraqib is situated at the confluence of the M-4 and M-5 highways in eastern Idlib. The Russian Defence Ministry stated that it would deploy its forces to counter Turkish attempts to retake the town. Rebel control of the town had blocked traffic between Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s commercial capital. The highways had come under the control of the rebel forces soon after the civil war in Syria started in earnest in 2013.

Turkey has been loath to allow the Syrian government to retake Idlib, which is along its border. Erdogan felt that a comprehensive Syrian military victory would send hordes of civilian refugees into Turkey. When the war started, Turkey had actually instigated Syrian civilians to cross over in order to manufacture a humanitarian crisis that would provide the basis for open foreign military intervention in Syria. But after Erdogan’s dreams of a quick-fire regime change failed to materialise and the fighting intensified, around three million Syrian refugees poured into Turkey. 

The Erdogan government also feels threatened by the growing assertiveness of the Kurds. Turkey invaded northern Syria last year with the aim of nipping in the bud the rise of an autonomous Kurdish-dominated statelet on its borders. A military defeat in Idlib would encourage the Kurds to regroup and pose another challenge to Turkey. Erdogan wants to settle Syrian refugees in the Kurdish-dominated areas of northern Syria. 

In a televised address to the nation in February, Erdogan justified his targeting of Kurdish militias in Syria. “If we do not clear our borders of terrorists now, we might have to fight bigger wars inside Turkey later on,” he said.

Turkey angered Russia and other governments in the region by sending hundreds of rebel fighters it had trained to fight in Syria to Libya. It is helping the internationally recognised government in Libya to fight against the forces of Khalifa Haftar, the warlord who controls much of the country and its oil resources. Haftar has the tacit backing of Russia, France, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and some other countries. The government based in Tripoli survives on the military support of Turkey, Qatar and a few other countries. Turkey’s intervention and the role of the Syrian rebels helped prevent the fall of Tripoli under the Haftar-led military juggernaut. 

In early February, the Syrian army escalated its ground and air assault on the rebels holed up in Idlib with the support of Russia. The Syrian artillery shelling and air attacks killed more than 58 Turkish soldiers who had forcefully intervened to help the jehadi forces. Turkey had initially alleged that it was the Russian Air Force that was involved in the attack that claimed 36 of its soldiers. The Russian Defence Ministry strongly denied the claims but at the same time insisted that Turkish troops “were in battle formation with terrorist groups” when the attack took place. 

Turkey retaliated by launching “Operation Spring Shield”, in continuation of its undeclared war on Syria, deploying 10,000 soldiers in Idlib, inside Syria. Turkey claimed that it had shot down two Syrian jets, eight helicopters and a large number of tanks in retaliation for the killing of its soldiers. Ankara claims to have killed more than 2,000 Syrian troops. The figures trotted out are mainly for the consumption of a domestic audience. 

Both sides have suffered heavy casualties but a full-scale war between Turkey and Syria has been avoided for the time being. Such a war would have drawn in foreign powers once again into the region and started a potential face-off between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO). 

The European Union foreign policy chief, Josip Borrell, issued a warning that the serious military clashes in Syria could quickly escalate “into a major open international military confrontation”. The U.N. Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, issued an appeal to both sides to “step back from the edge of further escalation”.

Turkey threatens to open borders

In the wake of the looming confrontation with Russia over Idlib, Erdogan called for military help from his NATO partners, but the NATO headquarters in Brussels did not oblige. Turkey then threatened to open its borders once again and allow refugees to flood Europe. In fact, Ankara briefly allowed some refugees to cross into Greece and neighbouring European countries, prompting strong protests from Brussels and the European governments. 

Erdogan has been saying that if the West does not help him find a solution to the refugee problem, he has the option of letting them loose. Already more than a hundred thousand Syrian citizens have been given Turkish citizenship, and this has not gone down well with the general populace. A range of opposition parties want the expulsion of Syrian refugees.

The U.S. has adopted a “carrot-and-stick” policy with Turkey. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the U.S. was evaluating Turkey’s request for military aid. “We firmly believe that our NATO partner Turkey has the full right to defend itself from the risk that is being created by what [Bashar al-] Assad, the Russians and the Iranians are doing inside of Syria,” Pompeo said in the first week of March. But Defence Secretary Mark Esper and the U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, told Congress that the Donald Trump administration had no plans to “re-engage in the civil war” in Syria.

The Trump administration indicated that Turkey would have to first disentangle itself from close political and economic ties it had established with Russia to benefit from any meaningful military help. The U.S. and NATO are particularly unhappy with Turkey’s deal to purchase the sophisticated S-400 surface-to-air missiles from Russia. In February, after its forces suffered a military reverse, Turkey specifically asked the U.S. to deploy its Patriot missile batteries along its border with Syria to counter Russian and Syrian air power. Washington refused to oblige. The Russian Air Force is in full control of the air space over the Idlib province. 

Russia-Turkey ties

Bilateral relations between Russia and Turkey seem to have been papered over for the time being following the new agreement on Idlib. The Putin-Erdogan summit emphasised the durability of bilateral relations. Erdogan said the relations between the two countries were “at a high point” although Turkey had to make significant concessions, including accepting a new “de-escalation zone”, which reflected the advances made by the Syrian army. Both sides have reaffirmed their commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria. 

The majority of Turkey’s fortified “observation posts” are now surrounded by Syrian forces. Meanwhile, the Syrian government has stressed that it will not rest until it liberates every inch of its territory. “Syria fights terrorism on behalf of the whole world and it will continue to do so until it fully liberates Syrian land,” said Bouthaina Shaaban, President Bashar al-Assad’s political and media adviser. She said the ceasefire deal was possible only because of the major gains and sacrifices made by the Syrian army.