Afrin and Ghouta Scenarios Feared in Northern Syria
It is not a mere coincidence that the escalating violence targeting Idlib governorate has corresponded to the military operation launched by the “National Army” in rural Aleppo, the vicinity of the city of Tall Rifat. For this can be attributed to several reasons, including that the negotiations addressing the two areas are run by Russia and Turkey, which in the past a few months, have announced many moves; while the two presidents Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Vladimir Putin concluded the Sochi deal in September 2018, concerning Idlib, the two state’s ministers of defense agreed to start joint patrols in the perimeters of Tall Rifat, in the towns located in the west of Azaz city, in March 2019.
Speaking of the approach, the current developments that Northern Syria is bearing witness to lead to the state underwent by Afrin and eastern Ghouta early 2018, for while the Turkish Army and the “National Army” launched the Operation “Olive Branch” against the (Kurdish) “People’s Protection Units” in the first area, Russia-backed Assad’s forces were biting off eastern Ghouta’s areas, one after the other.
With the above-mentioned developments, the states in control of Northern Syria’s fate are making no comments, for Turkey has made no statements on the intensified aerial shelling of Idlib governorate by Russian aircraft and Syrian regime-affiliated helicopters, which so far has killed dozens of civilians. Russia, for its part, is withdrawing from the media landscape, and in the past a few days has committed itself to only refuting the death of its troops, whose camp in northern rural Hama has been attacked by opposition forces.
These attituded followed the conclusion of the 12th round of the “Astana” talks, during which the “guarantor states” did not reach an agreement on the formation of the Constitutional Committee, relied upon to write a new constitution for Syria. The round’s closing statement came up with overly broad terms, depicting a landscape lacking clarity of what is to be put into force in the upcoming days.
Reporting the last five day’s toll, the “Response Coordinators” have documented the death of 38 civilians and the injury of 82 others, given that these days witnessed an escalation of bombings on the part of Assad’s and Russian forces in Idlib governorate.
The scalation has also caused the displacement of no less than 43 thousand persons, according to the statistics of the “Coordinators”, pushing the total number of internally displaced persons up to more than 259 persons since early February.
In their report, the “Response Coordinators” said that the Russian and Assad’s forces have attacked more than 91 locations, of which 13 are vital centers, including four medical centers and hospitals, two Civil Defense posts, two IDPs camps and five educational facilities.
Addressing Idlib governorate’s fate in the near future, many analyses have appeared and are yet appearing; however, none of them is being taken as a certain case, especially with the absence of explanation on the part of the opposition forces, which announced complete readiness on the governorate’s fronts, as to deter any attack that Syrian regime might conduct, Naji al-Mustafa, spokesperson of the “National Front for Liberation”, informed Enab Baladi.
The bombardment undertaken by the Russian aircraft and the regime’s helicopters is focusing on Idlib’s southern countryside, as far as the northern and western rural parts of Hama, located within the borders of the “demilitarized zone” agreed upon under the “Sochi” deal, concluded in September 2018 by Russia and Turkey. The shelling forced thousands of residents out of their areas to “safer” ones on the Syrian-Turkish borders.
On the condition of anonymity, a military source, informed of the communication between Turkey and the opposition forces operating in Idlib, the escalation of hostilities is to pressure the factions into accepting running the joint Russian-Turkish patrols in the demilitarized zone, adding that it is the factions of the “National Front for Liberation” which refused the Russian patrols, not “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham” (HTS), which approved their presence on the condition that it shall accompany them.
The source ruled out the military operation on the part of Assad’s forces in Idlib governorate, considering the Russian patrols’ entry to the demilitarized zone a first step towards the return of some of the governorate’s areas to the control of the Syrian regime, and presumably, gradual undertakings by Russia will follow as to seize the center of Idlib city.
If the Russian patrols succeed in finding their way into the Demilitarized Zone, Assad’s forces would secure the complete range of Ham or Latakia from any offensive by the opposition factions and the “al-Qaeda”-affiliated Jihadist formations.
The “National Army” Heads West
Beyond the expected, and in contrast to what has been announced and prepared for, the factions of the “National Army” did not move to the area east of the Euphrates; but rather, they headed west, to the city of Tall Rifat and the villages surrounding it, which are preserved by the (Kurdish) “People’s Protection Units” after they withdraw completely from Afrin early 2018.
A week on the escalation of bombing in Idlib, the forces of the “National Army” launched a military operation against the “Units” within the vicinity of Tall Rifat on May 4, 2018. In the first hours, they controlled the two villages of Maraanaz and al-Malikiyah, the Kurdish forces’ major posts for attacking the city of Azaz and its surrounding.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, Youssef Hamoud, spokesperson of the “Notational Army”, said that in the meantime the military operation is concentrating on the al-Malikiyah-Azaz front, following days of planning. He added that the “National Army’s” armed groups aim to control the full range of the villages surrounding the city of Tall Rifat and the zone controlled by the “Units” in the area.
The operation was preceded by an attack on the part of the “Units” that targeted a Turkish armored vehicle, causing the death of a Turkish soldier and the injury of three.
On March 26, 2019, Turkey announced running the first of its joint patrols with Russia in the city of Tall Rifat, northern rural Aleppo. Back then, the Turkish Ministry of Defense stated that the Turkish army has launched the first patrol in Tall Rifat with Russia to guarantee the truce and the ceasefire in the area.