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How map of control has changed in northern Syria since April 2019 

Members of the Syrian regime forces on the top of a tank in the southern countryside of Idlib - 2 February 2020 (SANA)

Members of the Syrian regime forces on the top of a tank in the southern countryside of Idlib - 2 February 2020 (SANA)

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Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish

Since 24 April 2019, who controls what parts of northwestern Syria has changed dramatically. The Syrian regime and its ally, Russia, advanced on the northwest province of Idlib, the last stronghold of the Turkish-backed opposition. It retook control of strategic towns and cities in addition to the Aleppo-Latakia international highway (M4).

The Syrian regime forces, backed by Iranian militias and the Russian air force, carried out successive military campaigns that were separated by truce agreements or a ceasefire. The Syrian regime and its allies made use of these ceasefire agreements to prepare and organize their military ranks, bring in reinforcements and build fortifications, then preparing attack plans to re-control of more territories, which were under the control of the opposition.

April 2019… The fall of the initial opposition castles

With the “12th Astana process conference,” taking place between the three guarantor states (Russia, Turkey, and Iran), the Syrian regime backed by Iranian militias and the Russian air force were conducting aerial bombardments and ground attacks on cities and towns under opposition control. 

Map showing the military influence of the opposition factions in Idlib and rural Aleppo (green represents the opposition-held areas) - 26 April 2019 (liveuamap)

Map showing the military influence of the opposition factions in Idlib and rural Aleppo (green represents the opposition-held areas) – 26 April 2019 (liveuamap)

The opposition began to lose the first of its strategic areas, the town of Kafr Nabudah, in the northwestern countryside of Hama, followed by the fall of the entire Qalaat al-Madiq town in May 2019. Qalaat al-Madiq represents the gate to al-Ghab Plain, the agricultural and commercial reservoir on which the villages of the Hama countryside are underpinning and one of the Shashabo mountains (the western arm of Jabal al-Zawiya in the northwestern part of Hama).

The al-Assad regime forces continued to wrest control of villages in the northern and western countryside of Hama, and the southern countryside of Idlib, targeting residential areas by barrel bombs and airstrikes until the guarantor states of the Astana process, Russia, Iran, and Turkey on 2 August 2019, announced that they reached with the delegations of the regime and the opposition to a “conditional” armistice agreement in northwestern Syria.

Abolishment of armistice agreements and resumption of fighting 

The regime forces canceled the agreement and started military operations after accusing the opposition factions of violating the armistice and not abiding by the “Sochi” agreement.

In August 2019, they regained control over the cities and towns in the provinces of Hama and Idlib, including Hobait, Kafr Zita, al-Lataminah, Murak, and Khan Sheikhoun. Khan Sheikhoun is considered one of the most important cities in the region because it is positioned at the meeting point of Idlib and Hama provinces, sitting on the Damascus-Aleppo international road(M5).

On 30 August 2019, the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation announced that the Syrian regime agreed on a ceasefire deal in the Idlib region after Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan met in Moscow.

However, the Syrian regime and Russia continued to bomb residential areas. By the end of 2019, the regime forces re-controlled an area of one thousand square kilometers of Idlib region (nearly 621 miles)—around 114 villages—leaving the remaining area in the hands of the opposition factions. The remaining area is only 5,609 square kilometers (3,485 miles), with a population density of 821 people per square kilometer (0.62 miles), the Syrian Response Coordinators Group (SRCG) documented.

The Russian and Turkish parties signed a “truce” agreement, but the regime continued its attacks with the support of Russia in Idlib, Hama, and rural Aleppo three days after the deal was signed.

The Syrian regime retook control of Maarat al-Numan in the southern countryside of Idlib, Jabal Shahshabo, Saraqib, and Kafr Nabl in Idlib countryside, Anadan, Haritan, al-Eiss and other areas in Aleppo countryside. The regime ended its attacks by regaining control of the Aleppo-Damascus international road ultimately, and the military operations stopped with the signing of the Moscow agreement, on the 5th of last March, between Erdoğan and Putin. The agreements stipulated an immediate ceasefire and the conduct of joint Russian-Turkish patrols on the Aleppo-Latakia (M4) international highway.

Map showing the military influence of the opposition factions in Idlib and rural Aleppo (green represents the opposition-held areas) - 27 April 2020 (liveuamap)

Map showing the military influence of the opposition factions in Idlib and rural Aleppo (green represents the opposition-held areas) – 27 April 2020 (liveuamap)

Fragile agreements have weighed heavily on the armed opposition

Military analyst Colonel Ahmed Hamadi highlighted in an interview with Enab Baladi that the agreements that took place in northwestern Syria are fragile because the supporters of the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran, have had the intention of violating them since the moment they were signed without adequate international safeguards required by the United Nations or by highly effective actors in the world. Besides, the United States of America (USA) has left the opposition unarmed and without active leadership. All the factors mentioned above together increased the agreements’ fragility and facilitated their breach. It is worth noting that these ceasefire agreements were limited to the “Astana process” between the Russians, the Iranians, and the regime on the one hand and the Turks on the other hand.

The political scene was later programmed into agreements that included the Russians and the Turks and kept the Iranians out of it. Still, Iran’s military presence and reinforcement on the ground continued to increase, which changed the map of control in the region.

Therefore, we see the Syrian regime, the Russians, and the Iranians place a bomb within the ceasefire agreements, according to Colonel Hamadi, which is “terrorist groups that must be fought” and using this pretext to negate those agreements.

The Russians and the Syrian regime have always wished to take control of the entire territory under the control of the opposition because that would enable them to ensure monopoly over the whole of the Syrian situation, presenting it to the countries of the world as fait accompli.

On 22 April of this year, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif together as the three guarantor countries of the Astana process held a teleconference meeting. Their statements with regard to the outcomes of the meeting differed, which keeps the situation in northwestern Syria murky.

According to the statement of the Russian Foreign Ministry, the three ministers discussed the developments in the Idlib region, calling for the full respect for Syria’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity, and political independence in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. They also talked about the importance of the Constitutional Committee.

According to the statement of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, the ministers discussed, along with the situation of Idlib and the Constitutional Committee, the need to unilaterally lift the sanctions, and the need for the Syrian regime to expand its control over the entire Syrian territory and combat “terrorism.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, for his part, said that the meeting “discussed the fight against the novel coronavirus, the latest developments, the political process, the humanitarian situation and the return of displaced persons, especially in eastern Idlib and the Euphrates region.”

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