Murad Abdul Jalil / Taim al-Haj / Haba Shehadeh
Syrian geography emerges again as subject to new deals and conflict of interests between the different parties. However, this time the conflict is concentrated in Idlib and particularly its countryside. As for Russia, this city is “the hotspot of terrorism” and it must be cleared and brought back to the open arms of the Syrian regime by the elimination of the last opposition strongholds. As for Turkey, in September 2018, the President Recep Tayyip Erdogan considered that Idlib security is closely linked to Turkish national security.
Over the past two years, the Turks and the Russians were the main actors in the Syrian file. They have disagreed on specific points and assented to others. The most imminent subject is the “Astana process” to find a solution for Syria, through which Russia began to implement its political vision to gradually clear the regions of opposition, starting from Aleppo to Eastern Ghouta, to the countryside of Homs and Daraa. In turn, Turkey has not responded with a real reaction comparable to the massive loss of opposition parties, which it supports politically and militarily.
But this time, Ankara’s reaction has changed regarding Idlib. Accelerated events in the city in the past two weeks have annoyed the Turkish guarantor, forced him to make real threats and send military forces with hundreds of armored vehicles and machineries to pass a message to the regime and the Russians: It will not abandon its interests in the border city, even if it has to undertake land and military air operations in the area.
Caught between the Russians’ attempt to maintain their achievements and preserve the areas they seized. The endeavors of Turkey to demonstrate its existence and its real threats, civilians have born a significant loss. According to UN statistics, hundreds were killed, and hundreds of thousands have been displaced, and now they are waiting for the results of new understandings between the two parts.
In light of the dispute between Turkey and Russia in Idlib, Enab Baladi is trying in this file to monitor the playing cards of both parties in Idlib to achieve their interests, which would further complicate the scene or exert pressure on the conflicting parties to sit at the negotiation table again and reach new understandings.
Predictions of post-Daraa phase becoming a reality
Following the Syrian regime forces’ control on the opposition’s areas in southern Syria, Daraa, and Quneitra, after forcing the factions to “reconcile” in July 2018, the regime and Russia started to target Idlib and its countryside to control it by directing artillery and aircraft. This is because Idlib has contained the largest gathering of opponents and fighters who refused reconciliation.
At the time, warnings were issued not only from Turkey but also from the international community. “A military solution there will cause a catastrophe, not only for the Idlib region but for the future of Syria,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, on 24 August 2018.
John Ging, Director of the Operational Division at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, considered on 28 August 2018, that “Idlib may witness the worst-case scenario since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis.” He urged the international community to do its best to avoid a catastrophe in Idlib and the surrounding areas.
For his part, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed that “the United States considers the bombing of Idlib as an escalation of an already dangerous conflict.”
The international community’s reaction led Russia to declare a ceasefire on Idlib, after reaching an agreement with Turkey, in September 2018, known as the “Sochi agreement.” Then, it returned to the policy of “slow nibbling” of the opposition areas, through a fixed scenario that begins with a military operation by the regime’s forces on one area for several days with various types of weapons, and then with complete control.
This was followed by reactions and accusations of breaching the agreement and humanitarian warnings, before reaching a ceasefire for some time, establishing new control points, and then returning to the same scenario.
As expected, a humanitarian catastrophe occurred in Idlib during the previous weeks, as a result of the military escalation and the bombing that was described as “hysterical” since the number of displaced people, from December 2019, reached more than 520,000 civilians, according to the spokesman for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Jens Larquet, who confirmed at a press conference on 5 February, that “there is no longer any safe place in Idlib, because bombs are falling everywhere.”
One hundred eighty-two people have been killed since 16 January, and more than 120 medical points have been destroyed since the beginning of this year, according to what the “Response Coordinators Team” documented on 6 February this year. They stressed that the continuation of the military operation threatens one million and 200 thousand people from Idlib’s center and its surroundings.
Militarily, the regime forces managed to control strategic cities such as the city of Maarat al-Numan, the largest city in southern Idlib countryside, up to the city of Saraqib in the eastern countryside located at the intersection of the two international highways, Damascus-Aleppo “M5” and Aleppo Latakia “M4”.
A “Turkish awakening” and sensing of the danger of losing the city, accompanied the accelerated progress of the regime’s forces with the support of Russian aviation, which led Turkey to increase its military convoys to the city and install new observation points around Saraqib, which met by the regime forces’ shelling. According to an announcement by the Turkish Ministry of Defense, this resulted in the killing of eight Turks and wounding nine others.
The killing of Turkish troop members led to the emergence of a Turkish-Russian dispute, as the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, threatened to launch a massive military operation in Idlib if the Syrian regime forces did not withdraw areas from the agreed-upon with Russia within the “Sochi agreement.”
In a speech to the Justice and Development Party (AKP), Erdogan said that “our air and ground forces will move when needed freely in all our areas of operations and Idlib, and they will carry out military operations if necessary.”
He also warned to directly target elements of the regime forces against any attacks on its troops or Turkey’s backed factions without hesitation, regardless of the party carrying out those attacks.
Erdogan established a time-limit, this February, for the withdrawal of the Syrian regime forces from the areas surrounding the Turkish checkpoints. However, the regime did not take the threats seriously and continued its control over the city of Saraqib and besieged the Turkish checkpoints located around the city.
After that, diplomatic contacts have begun in an attempt to reduce tension between the two countries, and a Russian delegation arrived in Turkey last Saturday to discuss and negotiate the fate of the city of Idlib, in an attempt to find a solution that suits each party’s vision, but what are the cards that each party will use to impose its vision and try to influence and pressure the other part?
Legitimacy and terrorism … the Russians’ argument for seizing Idlib
In September 2015, Russia officially announced its interference in Syria under the pretext of supporting the Syrian regime to combat terrorism and eliminate the “Islamic State” and the “Al Qaeda” organization.
Consequently, it possessed a card that might be described as legal, as its intervention came at the request of the regime recognized as a legitimate government in the corridors of the United Nations.
Over the previous months, Russia has made the legitimacy of its intervention and its counterterrorism, an excuse to justify its attack on Idlib. However, the Russian officials’ meetings or statements always mentioned the legitimacy of the attack.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told a news conference on 7 February that “everything done to fight terrorists is legal,” stressing that “any agreements to reduce escalation in Idlib do not include the terrorists, because they are outside the law.”
“Guise of terrorism”
Russia relies on the pretext of the presence of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which controls large areas in Idlib and its countryside, and which is classified as “terrorist” in Russia, Turkey, and the US, taking its existence as a card to continue its operations.
Permanent Representative of Russia to the United Nations, Vassily Alekseevich Nebenzia, said at a session of the Security Council on 6 February, that “elements of the HTS, which is internationally classified as a terrorist, have intensified their attacks from Idlib since the end of 2019 on Syrian and Russian forces, including Khmeimim airbase.”
The statements of Western officials support the Russian theory that it is necessary to combat terrorism in Idlib. Still, the use of force against these groups must be targeted precisely, according to statements of Geir Otto Pedersen, UN envoy to Syria, at the Security Council session.
One of Russia’s cards to pressure Turkey is its repeated accusation of not implementing the “Sochi agreement,” which provides for the expulsion of terrorist organizations in Idlib.
Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, said in statements to the Russian newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta that Turkey was unable to separate the Syrian armed opposition, with which it had cooperated and was ready for dialogue with the Syrian regime in the framework of the political process, from the terrorist “HTS,” as he said.
Russia warned Turkey of another refugee flood, by bombing the cities and towns of the northern countryside of Aleppo, which are supervised at the economic and service level by the Turkish states near the Syrian border, as the planes targeted five airstrikes in the city of al-Bab. This resulted in wounding three people with various fragments, burning the Sheikh Dusel mosque, and destroying three houses, according to the office staff member of the “Civil Defense” center in the city of al-Bab, Osama Al-Hajjar, on 2 February.
The bombing came after the opposition factions launched a military operation in the Zahra neighborhood of Aleppo countryside. Maan Talaa, a researcher at the “Omran Center for Strategic Studies,” considered it as a reaction to the opposition’s attempt to open a new front in Aleppo to ease the battles and allow the advance of the regime forces in Idlib. Still, the two countries intervened quickly and set matters at the level.
Idlib… Turkey’s strategic gain
What are its pressure cards?
“A new era in Syria for Turkey,” said Turkish President on 5 February, to repel the regime forces in Idlib, hours after his conversation with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, and informing him that Turkish forces will “do what is necessary” if the Syrian regime forces do not withdraw to the areas specified in the “Sochi agreement.”
The escalation of the Turkish tone reflects the importance of Idlib for Turkey, as the province is considered the last point of conflict between the regime and the opposition, and therefore it Turkey’s medium to have a role in the future of Syria and the political process in general.
Researcher Maan Talaa emphasized that “this does not mean a match between the national condition of the opponents and the Turkish condition, since the main factor in these agreements is the good relationship with Russia, as it is the most dominant actor in the Syrian issue.”
Adana Agreement update
Idlib’s importance for Turkey comes from the fact that the fate of Autonomous Administration through its main artery, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), remains unclear in the administrative and security terms. Thus, Idlib is considered as an advanced defense point to end the administrative situation, and the security position of the Administration, especially since all agreements, whether in the Euphrates or Idlib are worrying agreements, according to the researcher Maan Talaa, who talked about Turkey’s will to intervene in Idlib by converting its immediate gain to a strategic gain and reaching a new agreement other than the old Adana Agreement.
Talaa said that Turkey is trying to impose new conditions to obtain a new agreement allowing it to intervene with a greater area than that stipulated in Adana Agreement, which is limited to only five kilometers in an attempt to prevent communication between the Autonomous Administration cantons.
Turkey has kept repeating that its presence in Syria follows the Adana Agreement. Erdogan justified, last week, his forces’ entry to Idlib by saying that “the Syrian regime has not invited any of the current acting parties in Syria except Russia and Iran, while Turkey has the legal right to intervene to protect its security under the Adana Agreement.”
In turn, the Syrian regime responded to Erdogan through a statement by a source in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs published by the official Syrian News Agency (SANA), on 5 February this year, saying that “the Adana Agreement imposes coordination with the Syrian government as it is an agreement between two countries. Therefore, according to the requirements of this agreement, Erdogan cannot act individually.”
The source explained that the Adana Agreement had been signed to ensure border security between the two countries, and to “combat terrorism,” considering that “what Erdogan is doing is protecting his tools from terrorist groups for which he has been, and still, providing various forms of support.”
Idlib is important for Turkey as it is a border region and a concern for this country, because of its impact on its national security, stated the leader in the Free Syrian Army, Abdul Salam Abdul Razzaq. This is because the regime’s control over Idlib makes the areas of Aleppo northern countryside and Afrin, over which Turkey took control with the operations Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch, on the negotiations table. After all, Russia seeks to take control over all Syrian territories, in addition to Turkey’s loss of an essential card in Syria that it uses for the East Euphrates file, and it may hence come out of the equation of conflict and interests in Syria.
What are Turkey’s cards?
Commenting on Turkey’s cards in the Syrian scene, the leader in the Free Syrian Army, Abdul Salam Abdul Razzaq, considered that Turkey “enters to the north of Syria legally under the Adana Agreement, intervenes in the depth of its incubator and friend that demands the entry of the Turkish army, defends its borders, and aims to end the crisis of refugees who may reach Europe.”
Turkey also hinted at the opening of the Aleppo northern countryside front, according to Abdul Razzaq. The Turkey-backed National Army managed in record time to liberate three villages before its withdrawal, last week. At the same time, the factions took control of Jamiat al-Zahra neighborhood in a short battle in the western countryside of Aleppo, as well as the coast front, which is considered as a strategic area for the Syrian regime because of the presence of its incubator, and its importance for Russia, where the Khmeimim Air Base and the Russian Command and Operations Center are located.
There have also been indications, during the previous days, of the possibility of USA’s support to Turkey in its position in Idlib, through statements by US officials. This represents a pressure card on Russia that fears the loss of its Turkish ally in the region, and the shift to the American partner that Ankara may use in the face of Moscow as one of the options.
According to al-Hurra website, the US Special Representative for Syria Engagement, James Jeffrey, said on 6 February that the United States is considering a series of options to confront developments in Idlib Governorate, stressing that Washington is offering the Turks any help they need, and saying that “the Turks have a powerful and capable army. They are now strengthening their sites, and we see no indication that the Turks will withdraw from the checkpoints in Idlib.”
According to the researcher at Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Maan Talaa, Russia sees real indications of an active US return to the region, through the diplomatic movement, whether in Europe or even its representatives, to hinder the Russians and give them no pretext to interfere more in Idlib, in addition to the Caesar law and the penalization of any party that rejects the political process within its framework approved by Security Council Resolution 2254.
Astana Agreement is threatened… Turkey “wins”
The greatest threat that Erdogan made as a message to Moscow is his announcement of the death of the Astana path. According to TRT HABER, he told reporters on his return from Senegal, on 29 January, that “there is nothing named Astana path left,” demanding action to reviving it and discussing what can be done.
The Astana path was launched at the beginning of 2017, with the participation of representatives of the Syrian regime and the opposition, and with the guarantee of Russia, Turkey, and Iran. It created the so-called “de-escalation” areas that Russia took control of later.
The Astana 4 meeting, held in May 2017, included the entire Idlib governorate with parts of Latakia, Aleppo, Hama, Homs, Damascus (Eastern Ghouta), Daraa, and Quneitra, in “tension relief” areas, sponsored by the guarantors, to implement a ceasefire, excluding “terrorist” organizations, namely, HTS and ISIS.
Political analyst Taha Odehoglu considered that the region is on the threshold of reformulating a new framework for the Astana path between Ankara and Moscow, by “drawing new lines of contact,” expressing his hope that this will contribute to “re-considering the Syrian opposition’s stance.”
Researcher Moein Talaa indicated that the Astana path is the most crucial gain that Turkey is trying to benefit from because the Astana agreement has enabled the establishment of security in specific areas and has been used as the foundation of a political solution in Eastern Ghouta and southern Syria, which intensified the guarantors’ effectiveness, whether Turkey or Russia, in the political scene, until this was reflected on the Geneva path.
Talaa believed that threatening to end the Astana path means that the security measures imposed in Syrian areas will be disconcerted. Consequently, the Russians’ vision in the region will become fuzzy, which may lead to moving from Astana to Geneva and resuming the political path following UN Resolution 2254.
Scenarios awaiting Idlib
The insistence of the Syrian regime and its allies, Iran and Russia, to control the international roads M5 and M4, and annex many areas of Idlib governorate, led to raising questions about the fate awaiting the province incubating nearly four million people, pending a new agreement between the guarantors, amid fear of military escalation between the warring parties.
According to Hadi al-Bahra, the joint head of the Constitutional Committee, there are many questions and concerns raised about the Idlib governorate and the southern and western Aleppo countryside. Al-Bahra wrote on Facebook about several scenarios awaiting Idlib governorate, in light of the military campaign taking place in the area.
One of these scenarios consists of the regime’s seizure of M5 and M4 roads, with the establishment of a specific and limited safety zone on the side of the two ways in the north and west. Al-Bahra indicated that this is what Russia seeks.
Al-Bahra asserted that Turkey, which he described as “friendly,” will keep its checkpoints on the two roads under its control, pointing out that the M4 highway will be regulated by special arrangements.
According to the second scenario, al-Bahra expected that the previous understanding on Idlib would be reactivated, or a new understanding would be reached to reduce violence and stop the offensive actions, for a period of no less than six to eight months, during which the time will be devoted to solving the problems emanating from the HTS’s presence in the area in a way that does not cause displacement waves or lead to risking the civilians’ lives.
As for the third scenario, the economic, diplomatic, and political sanctions against the regime will be strengthened, in addition to hindering any attempts to violate the regulations. The new arrangement will include a window to activate political understandings internationally, regionally, and locally, and according to the results and the success or failure rate of those understandings, the features of the next stage will be decided.
Al-Bahra considered that the failure of the designated stage would lead to the outbreak of violence and military clashes again with the aim to re-impose a new military reality on the ground.”
In the event that the US does not support the Turkish position, a “modified Adana agreement” may be established so that Turkey can advance 20-30 km deeper over the entire border, and this constitutes the minimum compromise that the Turkish authorities can accept if the circumstances dictate a given situation.
Tactical differences for a new dialogue
Syrian political analyst specializing in Russian affairs, Mahmoud Hamza, stressed that there is a real tension between Turkish and Russians, who understood the “Astana” and “Sochi” agreements differently. However, the Syrian regime did not adhere to these accords with Russia’s support.
On the other hand, Turkey has not removed the factions classified as a terrorist (the HTS), and separated them from the moderate opposition factions, according to Hamza, who indicated that Turkey might use the fighters of these armed groups to blackmail Russia to gain more.
Hamza said that the two parties are not ready to compromise their mutual relations, which “are more important than Idlib and the concerned parties’ interests in Syria,” describing the differences between Russia and Iran over Idlib as tactical while indicating that they will agree again on resolving their disputes. These differences may be used as a justification for establishing new deals between the two parties.
Hamza conveyed that the Syrian people have not benefited from the Astana and Sochi agreements at all.
He added that Idlib is influenced by the attempts made by the regime and Russia to control the international roads, and once they control it, the battles will subside because Russia and al-Assad cannot enter the city of Idlib, due to the high population density and large numbers of fighters in the area.
For his part, Turkish political analyst Bakir Atagan conveyed that Turkey will not give up the strategic momentum, which is “the Syrian people,” knowing that if Ankara loses the Syrians themselves, then it will lose its interests in the Middle East and the whole region.”
On the steps that Turkey can take regarding the regime’s progress in Idlib, coinciding with Erdogan’s threat to stop the regime using the military option, Atagan told Enab Baladi that Ankara will stick to dialogue with Russia while threatening to carry out military action on the ground to push the other side to sit at the negotiation table to conclude new agreements on the region.
Unaccomplished Astana or new Daraa in Idlib?
Talaa believed that Idlib would witness one of two scenarios, the first is to install the military map as it is after the regime forces took control of the city of Saraqib in the eastern Idlib countryside, control the entire international road Damascus – Aleppo, and return to the Astana framework to achieve a more detailed agreement related to challenges beyond the current stage.
The most valid scenario, according to Talaa, is the implementation of the reconciliation model in the city of Idlib, which will be based on two aspects, the first is the regime’s failure to maintain a fully functional security system on the ground, while managing to only establish a mock balance at the level of state institutions, and here Turkey will play an important role.
On the fate of the HTS and the Turkestan Islamic Party, Talaa stated that this file will be postponed to the final stages of the conflict resolution in Syria, as it is still viable for investment by all parties except the Syrian parties.
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