Turkey is to establish new military structure in Syria’s Idlib
Idlib, the last remaining rebel stronghold, has been under a state of cautious calm since the 5 March cease-fire agreement signed between Turkey and Russia in the capital of Russia, Moscow, which could pave the way for a future articulated phase in the region’s future, on the military and political levels.
The world’s nations, including the key countries involved in the Syrian file, are struggling to cope with the novel coronavirus (COVID-19), which may impose new policies for some countries. For instance, Turkey tends to re-arrange its cards in Idlib and enforce a new structure of the Syrian opposition factions under one military umbrella, far from the plurality of factions and groupings of multiple affiliations.
The killing of at least 33 Turkish troops in Syria’s Idlib province in an aerial bombardment by the Syrian regime forces was the beginning of Turkey’s reinforcement of its military presence there through sending military convoys of thousands of elements and heavy weapons on a daily basis and establishing observation points into the region.
Turkey does not disclose the number of Turkish soldiers and types of weapons it enters into Syria. However, the US Institute for the Study of War (ISW) published a map of Turkey’s military buildup in Syria’s Idlib province; the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) deployed in northern Syria between 1 February and 31 March of this year amounted to nearly 20,000.
ISW said, in a study published in early April, that the TAF deployments include experienced Turkish special forces, armored units, and light infantry (also knowns as aka “commando”) units, including the 5th Commando Brigade, which specializes in paramilitary operations and mountain warfare.
The ISW pointed out that Turkey deployed its forces on the front lines against the Syrian regime forces, west of the Aleppo-Latakia international highway, compelling Russian President Vladimir Putin to agree to a new de-escalation deal on 5 March.
Two steps to re-arrange the military scene in Idlib
Turkey tries to reset the fighting scene in Idlib amid the ambiguity of the provisions of the Turkish-Russian agreement of 5 March and its implementation process. The Russian and Turkish forces were not able to conduct joint patrols along the Aleppo-Latakia international highway (M4), due to the sit-in of citizens and their refusal to allow Russian patrols pass in the area controlled by the opposition.
A leader in the National Front for Liberation (NFL), speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Turkey has begun, in the past few weeks, to withdraw elements from the opposition factions, according to the numbers of fighters in each faction, integrate them with Turkish soldiers inside the Turkish observation points in the region, and let them move freely there except for entering the Turkish military operations room.
The NFL leader told Enab Baladi that Turkey aims to create an organized army in the region and to dissolve the structure of the armed opposition factions, by slowly withdrawing their fighters. The leader described this step as positive to block the path for any party trying to come close to the Turks at the expense of others and create internal conflict.
A second source, familiar with the military operations in Idlib, told Enab Baladi that Turkey attempts to create the new structure of the opposition factions through two steps: The first is to train elements of the factions and make their affiliation contained in the Turkish points. Thus, every 300 elements of the factions are linked to a certain Turkish point. Actually, this comes to control the number of factions, which turned out to be fake and not the same one announced in the recent battles in Idlib. The second step is to integrate the faction of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) into the new structure.
Enab Baladi conducted an opinion poll on its Facebook page in which about 861 users took part. The opinion poll was about whether or not Turkey will succeed in restructuring the opposition factions in Idlib and its countryside; 64 percent of the respondents considered that Turkey is able to restructure the factions, because it is the decision-maker in the region, while 36 percent of the respondents believed that Turkey would not succeed.
Enab Baladi contacted the spokesperson of the NLF of the “Syrian National Army,” Captain Naji Mustafa, and confirmed that there is effective coordination between the factions and Turks in the region, through the special arrangements and military organization of some issues on the front lines.
Mustafa said that given that Idlib enjoys a wave of relative peace, the factions began preparing their fighters and military training by setting up military camps, as well as making military, defense, and offensive plans on all axes.
With regard to the Turkish side, Mustafa explained that Ankara has increased its military deployment in the areas bordering the fighting fronts with the Syrian regime, and has placed military observation points on some fronts in Idlib. Therefore, there is high-quality coordination between the factions and the TAF through the military operations room.
The Turkish move in Idlib came after figuring out that some military leaders had tampered with the number of fighters given in the recent military campaign of the regime and the rapid progress on the battlefronts in Idlib, to appear later as less than the actual number on the ground.
Captain Abdul Salam Abdul Razzaq, a leader in the Syrian National Army (SNA), in an interview with Enab Baladi, highlighted that several drawbacks appeared in the organizational structure of the factions, including the varying capabilities and performance of combat personnel and poor coordination on the fronts.
Therefore, the reassessment of the military performance of the factions has been started to avoid such impropriety, restructuring, and re-organizing these forces centralized in Syria’s north.
About future steps to be taken for the creation of the opposition faction’s new structure, Abdul Razzaq said that work is progressively taking place to organize and frame the opposition fighters up, far away from the very top-heavy administrative structures and the corruption they suffered in some areas, forming a body similar to the central force on all fronts, controlling it with real laws and regulators and linking it to the operations room in coordination with Turkish allies.
Abdul Razzaq confirmed that gradually there will be no meaning for the names of the factions and their forms, which have proven a failure in recent years.
HTS “close to the new structure”
Turkey has taken some military steps in Idlib and attempts to merge the fighters of the opposition armed factions into one army and abolish the plurality of factions. Still, Turkey’s primary focus is placed on other organizations, mainly “the HTS” alongside the “radical organizations” present in the region.
According to the NLF leader, who asked not to be named, Turkey’s primary goal is to organize the fighters militarily and merge them into one body, besides maintaining the cease-fire with Russia and Iran and preventing its violations. Then, it is the role of the “HTS,” which will later enter the new formation.
Lately, there have been indications of a possible shift in the case of the HTS, including what was declared by the US Special Envoy for Syria James Jeffrey in late January that “the HTS is primarily focused on fighting the Syrian regime, we have not seen them generate, for example, international threats for some time.”
Jeffrey said, in a press conference, that “the HTS fighters claim themselves to be patriotic opposition fighters, not terrorists, but the US has not accepted that claim yet.”
Later on, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group (ICG) interviewed with the HTS General Commander, Abu Mohammad al-Julani on 20 February, in which he conditioned his pledge on the notion that the HTS would not use Syria as a launching pad for external operations, not allowing even others to use it for such a purpose. Al-Julani stressed that the HTS group focuses exclusively on its struggle against the Syrian regime and its allies in Syria.
In light of the cautious calm that prevails in Idlib, the region’s population of approximately four million, according to United Nations figures, is awaiting the outcome of the next stage of military developments regarding the continuation of the cease-fire with the Syrian regime or heading to try to eradicate “jihadi organizations” in case they break Turkish directions.
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