Will Tel Rifaat reveal some secrets of March 5 agreement between Turkey and Russia on Idlib?

Two officers of the Russian and Turkish armed forces on the "M4" highway in Idlib countryside (Turkish Ministry of Defense) 

Two officers of the Russian and Turkish armed forces on the "M4" highway in Idlib countryside (Turkish Ministry of Defense) 


Turkey and Russia continue to confirm their commitment to the cease-fire agreement in Syria’s war-battered Idlib province signed on 5 March—which stopped the fighting in Idlib and rural Aleppo, maintained the Syrian regime’s advanced control points, including the entire “M5” strategic international road. However, there have been many ambiguities surrounding the details of the agreement since its announcement.

Recently, news spread about the possibility of the Turkish and “Syrian National” armies entering the city of Tel Rifaat and seizing it from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) according to an understanding with Russia, which is said to be related to the March agreement.

If this were to happen, control of Tel Rifat city would have removed some of the ambiguities of the Turkish-Russian agreement of 5 March on Idlib. Turkey had mobilized thousands of its fighters in northern Syria before signing the agreement and was waiting for the withdrawal of the Syrian regime forces to the Sochi-deal borders during the end of last February (Erdogan’s deadline). However, none of this happened. On the contrary, new Turkish observation posts were besieged by the Russian-backed Syrian regime forces, and opposition’s control over the area diminished. All these together raise the pressing question of Turkey’s gain from the Moscow agreement in this period. 

Tel Rifaat .. an age-old demand 

At the end of last March, Syrian media outlets reported that the SDF informed its commanders and their families of the need for an urgent exit from the city of Tel Rifaat in the northern countryside of Aleppo, to other areas, east of the Euphrates River, in anticipation of any future Turkish offensive in the region.

In addition, the SDF asked at the beginning of the last week of March, all civilians living in the city of Tel Rifaat and the surrounding villages to immediately evacuate the area and head to other regions: the SDF-held provinces of al-Hasakeh, Raqqa, Deir ez-Zor.

Enab Baladi’s correspondent in rural Aleppo has not been able to cross-check the information mentioned above, which indicates that this information if issued, would be on a small-scale within the SDF leaders as well as challenging to verify. 

Turkish political analyst Firas Rıdvanoğlu said, in an interview with Enab Baladi, that the city of Tel Rifaat is considered very important to Turkey, noting that the Turkish media outlets are focusing in the current period on the news about the infiltration of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) elements into the region of Operation Euphrates Shield” and similar areas of Turkish influence in Syria.

Rıdvanoğlu said that this news media’s performance represents media preparation about the seriousness of this area (Tel Refaat), which Turkey considers a hotbed of “terrorist” leaks, according to his description.

Therefore, Turkey will not allow these leaks of “terrorists,” according to Rıdvanoğlu, pointing out that this was part of the Russian-Turkish agreement reached on 22 October 2019, related to Operation “Peace Spring.” The agreement stipulated that Russia guarantees the withdrawal of all the fighters Turkey considers a source of concern. Rıdvanoğlu added that this item has not yet been implemented.

 Rıdvanoğlu thinks that if such an agreement exists, the agreement must provide that Tel Rifaat is ceded to the Syrian regime in exchange for Saraqib, a strategic city recaptured by the Syrian government and its supporter Russia, ruling out at the same time such an agreement. 

 Rıdvanoğlu reinforced his view by saying that the areas of influence in northern Syria have been drawn between the opposition and the Syrian regime; Idlib and beyond are under the control of the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF)-backed Syrian opposition. He excluded that there would be another retreat anymore in this region; in the region, there is a deployment of the TAF, not only the military observation posts as happened in the previous areas, in reference to the cities of Khan Sheikhoun, and Maraat al-Numan.  

Turkey’s media momentum for the preparation of a military offensive in Tel Rifaat 

In recent weeks, the Turkish Ministry of Defence has remarkably focused on the east and west of the Euphrates, by issuing almost daily data, talking about repelling attempts by infiltrators from elements it describes as “terrorist,” towards the area of the “Operation Peace Spring,” stretching from the town of Tel Abyad in rural Raqqa to the city of Ras al-ain in rural al-Hasakeh, in addition to Afrin and al-Bab areas.

This news enhances what analyst Firas Rıdvanoğlu talked about, preparing the Turkish viewer for the possibility of a battle to stop such infiltration, as it is regarded as a threat to Turkish national security. Perhaps this policy, using the “media momentum to justify starting a military operation, has become known in terms of its recurrence in the three military operations that Turkey fought in Syria (Euphrates Shield, Olive Branch, Peace Spring).

In this context, the official spokesperson of the “Syrian National Army” (SNA), Major Yousef Hammoud, told Enab Baladi that the elements of the “Kurdish People’s Protection Units” (YPG) carried out infiltration operations to the SNA- held areas almost daily. He said that the TAF and the SNA  monitor these infiltrations and always repel them.

For his part, the military commander of the “Third Legion” in the city of Tel Abyad in rural Raqqa, known as “Aby Mujahid,” confirmed to Enab Baladi that a military movement of the Syrian regime and the YPG was monitored in the middle of last March, from the vicinity of Ain al-Arab city in rural Aleppo, noting that the Syrian regime and the YPG attempt to infiltrate from time to time into the area of “Operation Peace Spring.”

Hammoud stressed that the “SNA” get fully geared up for any future possibilities, as he put it.

Regarding the news about emptying the city of Tel Rifaat by the “SDF,” Hammoud said that the SNA has not received any information about this.

Hammoud said that there is “unlikely” to be an agreement between the Russian and Turkish sides, stipulating Turkey’s concession in Idlib in exchange for control of Tel Rifaat, and said that “things are not so simple.”

Coronavirus crisis may hinder efforts

The talk about a possible battle conducted in the city of Tel Rifaat in the countryside of Aleppo comes at a time when the world, including Turkey, and the Kurdish-led Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (NES) and Russia, is seriously immersed in combating the novel coronavirus (COVID-19).

Several international voices have lent their voice in favor of ending all wars and fighting the coronavirus, most notably the voice of the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres. Guterres called for a cessation of all armed conflicts in the world, and a fight against the “coronavirus.” Perhaps these and other calls may stand as a wall against Turkish desires to launch military action in Tel Rifaat.

In this context, political analyst Firas Rıdvanoğlu said it is difficult to know whether the mobilized large TAF in northern Syria has now the perfect opportunity to launch military action in Tel Rifaat, especially amid the spread of the “coronavirus.”

An analysis paper published by the “Omran” Center for Strategic Studies, which was viewed by Enab Baladi, spoke about the impact of the coronavirus on the military and political aspects in Syria.

The paper highlights that the “coronavirus” managed to impose its armistice and limit and undermine traditional military operations, noting that this armistice never means the end or freezing of military operations.

The paper also considered that the warfronts have now taken various forms; there is a decrease in the traditional battlefields in favor of increased security activity and the adoption of new tactics to meet the interests of each party. 


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