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Idlib faces consequences of understandings and strategic interests between Russia and Turkey

A man rescuing a child after an airstrike by military aircraft in Maarat al-Numan, in southern countryside of Idlib, on 26 May, 2019 (AFP)

A man rescuing a child after an airstrike by military aircraft in Maarat al-Numan, in southern countryside of Idlib, on 26 May, 2019 (AFP)

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Enab Baladi – Ahmed Gamal

Idlib Governorate faces the threat of military dominance by Russia and the Syrian regime at a time marked by the intersection of international agreements and strategic interests between Russia and Turkey in the first place.

Idlib’s eastern and southern countrysides are witnessing a military escalation by the regime and Russia, following the launch of a ground operation on 19 December. During the attack, the two allies controlled an area of ​​approximately 320 square kilometers, in light of the limited role of Turkey, the guarantor in the region, and modest confrontations of the factions.

The latest operation aims to control international roads and eliminate the factions, which Russia classifies as “terrorist,” namely Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham. Thus, the military offensive caused a humanitarian crisis in the region, while the Turkish side and the factions stand aside passively.

Escalation by means of previous understandings

Khattar Abu Diab, professor of international relations at the University of Paris and expert and researcher in geopolitics, asserted that what is going on in Idlib stands for the implementation of the Sochi agreement signed between Turkey and Russia in September 2018. He added that it is also the result of Russia’s insistence on controlling international roads and ending the presence of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham in the region, despite Ankara’s attempts to postpone the realization of the accord and to impose a fait accompli on Moscow.

Abu Diab clarified, during an interview with Enab Baladi, that according to the Russians’ calculations when there is a possibility of taking something by force, they definitely take it away, as they did currently in the countryside of Hama and Idlib.

He discarded the assumptions that there are direct bargains and deals on the matter. However, the situation depends on the balance of international powers, and Turkey, as a player on the ground, is avoiding direct clashes with two major powers, the US and Russia, as the researcher put it.

Abu Diab explained that the biggest concerns revolve around the intention of Russia and the regime to continue their military expansion in Maarat al-Numan and Saraqib. There are also fears that the two forces would monitor and control international roads in the region and narrow the space for millions of civilians in Idlib, including the displaced people who came from many governorates following the settlements signed by the regime, which were imposed previously in the countryside of Damascus, Homs, and Daraa, in light of the Russian predominance and turkey’s insignificant influence in the region.

In the area controlled by the opposition factions in Idlib, there are 4.352,165 people, 50 percent of whom are residents of the region, 49 percent are forcibly displaced persons, according to statistics issued by the Syria Response Coordinators, published on 27 December.

Abu Diab indicated that these international conflicts are taking place at the expense of civilians in Idlib. The political forces and factions, especially Ha’yat Tahrir al-Sham, also bear responsibility for resolving the region’s crisis and reaching an appropriate settlement for all parties, which may end the tragedy of the last stronghold of the Syrian opposition.

According to the official Syrian statements, the regime’s political and military vision is to control the entire Syrian territory, including Idlib, until reaching the Turkish border.  This was confirmed by Bashar al-Assad in his recent interviews, followed by the statements of his Foreign Minister, Walid Muallem, last week.

Turkey and Russia signed the Sochi agreement on Idlib in September 2018, according to which they deployed 12 Turkish observation points in the region, in exchange for Russian observation points in the areas under the regime’s control.

Idlib’s fate, and its geographical borders, is determined now by the agreement. Although the settlement’s provisions have not been implemented, Moscow and Ankara consider it the cornerstone of the region’s future.

The agreement provided for the establishment of a demilitarized zone, as a step to a ceasefire between the opposition and the regime factions, in order to protect the Khmeimim Air Base in Latakia countryside and the Russian bases in Idlib and Hama countrysides.

Both sides agreed to prepare for the opening of international roads passing from Idlib to facilitate trade and civilians’ movement, namely the Damascus-Aleppo Road and Aleppo-Latakia Road.

Turkey weakest party?

Military analyst Colonel Ahmed Hamadi considered that Turkey is the weakest party in the Sochi agreement signed with Russia in September 2018, on the situation in Idlib, which makes the Turkish authorities eager to ease the tension in the region. He added that Turkey has not been able to prevent Russians and their allies from advancing towards the city of Maarat al-Numan in its latest military campaign, compared to the excessive force used by Russians who insist on resolving the conflict militarily.

Hamadi told Enab Baladi that the absence of any guarantees from the UN Security Council to punish any party that violates the Sochi agreement signed between Russia and Turkey, and the absence of any international or Arab support for Ankara, make Turkey isolated and weak in Idlib. He justified his analysis by the siege imposed by the regime forces on the Turkish observation points in the towns of Sarman and Maar Hatat, and the previously imposed siege on Murak checkpoint in Hama countryside.

In turn, the leader of the opposition factions, Samer al-Saleh, said that Turkey is not satisfied with the escalation in Idlib by Russia and the Syrian regime, especially the battles and recent progress, in conjunction with turkey’s exposure to great international pressure regarding the Syrian file and other issues.

Al-Saleh added, during an interview to Enab Baladi, that “Turkey uses political and diplomatic means in the Idlib file, and refrains from engaging in a confrontation with other countries in Syria, especially since the file has been internationalized and is subject to international interests.”

For his part, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan demanded on 26 December a truce to be implemented in the city of Idlib, northern Syria, in order to stop the wave of asylum seekers heading to the Turkish territory, saying that “the Syrian regime’s attacks in Idlib will not enable a permanent ceasefire.”

Erdogan estimated that about 100,000 people fled towards the Turkish border. He insisted that Europe had been informed of Turkey’s inability to take in a new wave of refugees, threatening that “everyone will pay the price” if the truce does not take place.

This was preceded by the statement of the Turkish Presidency spokesman, Ibrahim Calin, that Turkey sent a firm message to Russia regarding the Syrian regime’s offensive on the Idlib countryside, adding that Moscow pledged that it would interfere to stop the regime’s attacks on Idlib within 24 hours.

Russia’s pretexts in favor of al- Assad

Russia made many excuses in its war on the last strongholds of the Syrian opposition in Idlib, the most prominent of which is the “fight against terrorism” and the elimination of Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham” and other factions, to support ground-based progress that leads to controlling large areas of the region.

Hamadi added that ” Russians make excuses to hinder the Syrian revolution and empower al-Assad regime, which will give them legitimacy to stay in Syria and achieve their imperial ambitions in the region. Thus, the presence of the Syrian regime will help Russia and Iran to achieve their goals.”

One of Russia’s excuses is securing international roads “M4″and “M5”, which pass through the opposition-controlled areas in Idlib. Hamadi considered that “if Russians decide not to invade the opposition areas, they would be able to open new roads towards Aleppo, Abu Dahour and other areas.”

Modest confrontation

The al-Fateh al-Mubeen factions in Idlib, which includes “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and the National Front for Liberation, are attempting to confront the ground military campaign launched by the regime forces and its allies, by initiating defensive operations with modest means compared to the capabilities of Russia and its ally, in addition to repeatedly trying to stop their opponents’ progress and infiltration efforts to areas under its control in the eastern and southern countrysides of Idlib.

Al-Saleh stated that the factions in Idlib are absent from any international resolution in Syria after the Idlib file has been “internationalized” and became subject to international interests and multiple contradictions, while believing that the escalation and battles in the region “will not end with a binding UN resolution.”

Hamadi asserted that “the opposition factions are fighting with modest capabilities compared to the Russian arsenal, and they do not have the ability to confront the Russian military campaign, which employs the scorched earth tactic, in terms of aerial bombardment and explosive barrels, along with modern technological equipment enabling Russia to advance by night.”

The factions announced during the past two weeks, via their official media outlets, the launch of intense offensives with Tow missiles, targeting the regime’s locations in the Idlib and Latakia countryside, which led to the death and injury of dozens of the regime’s affiliates, including officers, and destructing tanks and military vehicles. Thus, the factions documented the operations in video records.

Major humanitarian crisis

The military operations were accompanied by an air escalation in cities and inhabited areas in the southern and eastern countrysides of Idlib, especially in Maarat al-Numan and its countryside, since last week, leading to the evacuation of most of the area’s population, along with the victims and the wounded. Thus, the region’s neighborhoods and vital facilities have been extensively destroyed.

In light of the escalation, US President Donald Trump warned Russia, the Syrian regime and Iran against killing thousands of civilians in Idlib. On 26 December, he tweeted: Russia, Syria, and Iran are killing or heading to murder thousands of innocent civilians in Idlib Governorate; do not do that!”

Trump added that Turkey was “working hard to stop this massacre,” referring to its role as a guarantor of the Idlib agreement signed with Russia.

The United Nations has announced the displacement of more than 235,000 civilians, including at least 140,000 children, in less than two weeks between 12 and 25 December 2019, as a result of the recent military escalation in Idlib, according to a statement issued by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, on 27 December. The report added that Maarat al-Numan, along with villages and towns in its vicinity, is almost empty of civilians.

The UN statement clarified that most of the displaced people went to the camps located on the Syrian-Turkish border, and that more than 100,000 civilians, who were displaced last week, had to seek refuge in unfinished or partially destroyed buildings, in tents, under trees, or even in open areas in the cold winter, which aggravates their suffering.

The UN has urged all concerned influential parties to ensure the protection of civilians and their freedom of movement, and to allow the provision of life-saving assistance without hindrance, while expressing its deep concern for the safety of more than three million civilians in Idlib, half of whom have been internally displaced over the past two years.

The Syria Civil Defense also documented seven massacres committed by the Syrian regime forces between 15 and 22 December, which lead to the death of 84 people, including 21 children and 16 women, and the injury of 173 others, including 26 children and 23 women.

Supported by Russian aviation, the Syrian regime forces targeted the villages and towns of Idlib countryside. They carried 379 raids using 190 explosive barrels, 1108 artillery shells and 468 missiles, during the same period, according to the Syria Civil Defense.

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