Russians attack, Turks increase checkpoints…Who is responsible in Idlib?
Enab Baladi – Murad Abdul Jalil
“Be careful … you are on a road where deaths occur frequently,” a phrase written on a sign placed on the international higway(Damascus – Aleppo), known as M5, near Saraqib in the eastern Idlib countryside, summarizing the impact of the warring parties’ struggle on opening international roads.
The cities and towns of Idlib and its countryside in northern Syria have witnessed a new wave of attacks by the Syrian regime forces with the support of the Russian air force, two weeks ago. The offensive launchers broke all the agreements signed with Turkey, which the Syrian opposition described as a guarantor in Astana and Sochi talks.
The fronts of fighting in the southern countryside of Idlib saw an accelerated advance of the regime forces. In the past weeks, the regime forces managed to control 30 towns and cities, the most important of which is the strategic city of Maarat al-Numan while intending to size the city of Saraqib, which is lying on the intersection of the two highways.
The reality on the fronts of the western countryside of Aleppo is different. Ten days after the regime launched a military attack, al-Assad forces were unable to advance further in the area, as they had to face the factions’ resistance. The opposition factions have initiated, on 1 February, a military operation in the regime-controlled areas in the Zahraa Association neighborhood, Aleppo, which raised questions about the remarkable difference between the two fronts in Idlib and the countryside of Aleppo, and who is responsible for the accelerated progress of the regime in Idlib countryside?
Ineffective participation in battles
With every advance of the regime forces in Idlib, attention is turned towards the reaction of Hay’ at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS). The HTS is considered the most massive military faction in the region, but accusations leveled against it for not being serious about defending the area while intensifying its presence in the western Aleppo countryside front. During the past days, the HTS showed a tendency to focus on the fronts in the countryside of Aleppo by carrying out bombings and engaging fighters from Turkestan in the battle, unlike the front of Idlib and its countryside, except for some operations against the regime forces.
A leader of the Free Syrian Army in the Idlib countryside, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Enab Baladi that the HTS withdrew its heavy weaponry from the Idlib fronts to the western countryside of Aleppo, during the past days. Meanwhile, the media spokesman of the opposition delegation to Astana,” Ayman al-Asimi, stated that the HTS did not put all of its military weight into the battle in Idlib because it considered that the decisive battle had not begun yet.
Al-Asimi explained to Enab Baladi that the HTS did not participate very effectively in the Idlib battles. The HTS only tried to prevent the Free Syrian Army factions from entering to the fronts, adding that the former would only make a move when it senses a real danger in the area.
Al-Asimi considered that the HTS is responsible for what is happening in Idlib due to its lack of seriousness in facing the attacks, and unwillingness to involve its military elites in the confrontations. Furthermore, the HTS failed to fortify its locations, which was evident through the rapid progress of the regime forces. He also attributed this reluctance to two reasons, i.e. either taking a decision not to fortify its locations or underestimating the power of the second party.
Enab Baladi emailed communications director at HTS, Taqi al-Din Omar, who considered that “all revolutionary factions know the truth about the participation of the HTS and the weight that it places in the fronts of Idlib countryside.” He insisted that the regime forces and Russia have put their weight on this axis.
Omar explained that “the battle is mainly fought by the Russians, as Russian forces participate as spearheads also, especially in difficult axes, with the deployment of a huge number of elements affiliated to the regime forces and the Iranian militias.”
He said that “the battle of Aleppo is not as intense as the confrontations in Idlib, which often distract the concerned parties from the main battle against the enemy (i.e. the Idlib battle).” Omar attributed the differences in the momentum of the battles to the nature of each region: “The Idlib countryside is dominated by the expansion of rural areas, where the number of residential buildings is limited. On the other hand, the western neighborhoods of Aleppo (which is in contact with the opposition-controlled zones), known by the density of its adjacent residential buildings, which brings the fighters to engage in what resembles an urban guerrilla.
On the withdrawal of heavy weapons, Omar stressed that the military equipment is present on the Idlib fronts more intensely than all the other axes and that the rumors about withdrawing are inaccurate. He also indicated that the nature of the battle, the presence of reconnaissance aircraft and the opposing party’s possession of an exact targeting mechanism led to “a logistical change in the way heavy weapons are transported and secured, in addition to getting it off at the right time and place on the battlefield.”
Commander of the Free Syrian Army, Abdul Salam Abdul Razaq, confirmed the difference between the fronts of Aleppo countryside and Idlib in terms of fortification and local interference between the regime-controlled areas and the factions’ areas on the one hand. In addition to the fact that Russia put all its capabilities in the eastern Idlib countryside axis, by relying on special forces and military groups to storm and use night vehicles, on the other.
However, he also talked about an apparent defect in the withdrawal of fighters, and the failure to invest the totality of the military force in the Idlib countryside axis in line with the Sochi agreement.
Where is the Turkish guarantor?
The accusations were not directed only to the HTS; however, questions were raised about the role of the National Front for Liberation supported by Ankara, and the absence of a clear role of the Turkish guarantor, especially in light of the presence of Turkish military control points in the region. There were three Turkish points besieged in Murak, Hama countryside and the southern countryside of Idlib. Ankara has shown no reaction to surrounding its checkpoints, except for the threatening to respond immediately to any attack by the regime forces.
According to the leader of the Free Syrian Army in Idlib countryside, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the faction’s biggest mistake was to hand over its heavy weapon to the National Front for Liberation after the Turkish-Russian agreement to establish a demilitarized zone in Idlib. The leader of the army also indicated that the Turkey-backed front is controlling the weapons’ provision process on the fronts by the supporter’s order, especially the use of TOW missiles.
As for the Turkish position, it was clouded by the way the Turkish officials have dealt with the progress of the regime forces in the Idlib countryside. However, the threats made by Erdogan to Russia reflect the difference between the two sides and Ankara’s rejection of the Russians’ movements in Idlib.
Erdogan said in a speech during an extended meeting of the heads of the branches of the Justice and Development Party in Ankara, on 31 January, that Turkey wants to establish stability in Syria and would not hesitate to do everything necessary regarding that, including the use of military force.
Erdogan added that the Syrian regime is still shedding blood in Syria, and Turkey has not and will not stay silent about the situation in Idlib or other areas in Syria.
Last Thursday, the Turkish President also accused Russia of failing to implement the Sochi agreement signed in September 2018, saying that there are some agreements between Turkey and Russia in the path of Astana and Sochi, but “unfortunately Russians did not abide by it.” Erdogan also threatened Moscow “to take measures in Idlib from now on;” however, he did not specify Turkey’s next steps, stressing that he “informed Russia that Ankara is running out of patience regarding the continued raids in Idlib.”
The Turkish threats were accompanied by Ankara’s increase of military observation points in the city of Saraqib in Idlib countryside, to prevent the progress of the regime forces, as it established three points surrounding the three fronts of the city.
According to al-Asimi, the opposition offered a recommendation to the Turkish side, which is to increase the number of checkpoints, due to its role in narrowing the gaps that enable the infiltration of the regime forces.
He considered that the new checkpoints implemented in Saraqib are meant to surround the city, to hinder the regime’s ability to enter the region, noting that this step, if applied in the cities of Khan Shaykhun and Maarat al-Numan, will prevent the regime from making progress.
Al-Asimi stressed that there is an apparent disagreement between Russia and Turkey in Idlib due to Moscow’s lack of commitment to the agreements and the continuous increase of its offensive in the region on the one hand. Turkey also attempts to implement more control points, on the other hand, indicating that the dispute is deeper than one can imagine.
The dispute between Turkey and Russia was embodied in the declaration of the HTS and the fighting factions to start a military operation in the western neighborhoods of Aleppo on the axis of the Zahraa area, the results of which are not known yet, as a message to Russia to push it to return it to the negotiating table.
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