What dimensions lie behind Turkey’s withdrawal from its observation posts in regime-controlled areas

Turkish military vehicles evacuate military posts in northern Hama heading to the village of Kokfeen in Jabal al-Zawiya, south of Idlib - 20 October 2020 (Enab Baladi / Yousef Ghuraibi)

Turkish military vehicles evacuate military posts in northern Hama heading to the village of Kokfeen in Jabal al-Zawiya, south of Idlib - 20 October 2020 (Enab Baladi / Yousef Ghuraibi)


Enab Baladi – Ali Darwish

The debate that has been raised in recent days over the news of Turkey’s withdrawal from its observation posts in areas under the Syrian regime’s control ended only after a convoy of military vehicles and transporters headed from the ninth Turkish observation point in Morek, north of Hama, after the dismantling, emptying and loading of the contents of the point, and then moving them to Jabal al-Zawiya, south of Idlib.

The ninth point’s withdrawal raised a question about the abandonment of the remaining Turkish observation posts, with no clarification from the Turkish government on the reasons for the withdrawal of the point and the fate of other observation posts.

In a previous talk to Enab Baladi, on 16 October, a military commander of the “National Liberation Front (NLF),” affiliated to the Turkish-backed “Syrian National Army (SNA),” said that Turkey would withdraw all observation points in the regime-controlled areas. On 15 October, Turkey decided to withdraw from its Morek point.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, the researcher at the “Omran Center for Strategic Studies,” Maan Talaa expected that Turkey would withdraw from the four observation posts in the regime-controlled areas within a time frame.

While “Reuters” quoted an “informed source,” saying that “the Turkish armed forces are not considering a withdrawal from another observation post at this stage.”

In areas under the control of the Syrian regime, there are four Turkish observation posts, namely Morek in the north of Hama, Sher al-Maghar in Jabal Shahshabo southwest of Idlib, al-Sarman southeast of Idlib and Tell Touqan east of Idlib.

Starting from 17 October 2017, a month after Turkey and Russia reached an agreement in the Kazakh capital of Astana involving creating a safe demilitarized zone, 12 Turkish observation posts were established in the “de-escalation” area in northwestern Syria.

The military impact needs time to become clear

Military analyst colonel Ziad Haj Obeid denied that the withdrawal of Turkish points from the Hama countryside would impact the opposition-held areas, militarily speaking. Obeid pointed out that there were negotiations between the Russians and The Turks who would not withdraw from the points “for free” as per his expression.

As for Talaa, he sees the withdrawal of Turkey from the observation points in the regime-controlled areas as a “somewhat” concession to the negotiating ceiling that Turkey proposed in its negotiations with Russia, namely, the regime’s withdrawal beyond the limits of the “de-escalation” zone.

According to Talaa, the observation points’ withdrawal demonstrates Turkey’s readiness for a “certain stage of escalation,” by the regime and its Russian ally who could initiate a military operation. Talaa added, the escalation requires Turkey’s redistribution of military forces in the opposition-controlled areas.

The redeployment (repositioning) process of Turkish forces would be clear if all Turkish observation posts were withdrawn from the regime’s areas and redeployed in the opposition-held areas. Only then the greatest impact of these withdrawals can be visible, according to Talaa.

Talaa summarized the effect of the withdrawal of the military posts on the political process in Idlib with two possibilities, the first of which was Tukey’s adherence to Russian pressures, and consequently a final declaration of the annexation of these areas by the regime, meaning the demarcation of new boundaries for the Idlib region.

According to Talaa, the second possibility is that the redistribution of Turkish forces in the opposition areas and their withdrawal from the regime’s areas may have an important military impact, strengthening advanced defense lines in areas under the opposition’s control, namely the contact lines with the regime’s forces.

There is still a concern in any of these two possibilities because they may have been made within the principles of the security agreement of the conflict parties in Syria but without a political background.

After signing the “Moscow” Agreement, on 5 March, Turkish forces deployed several military points in opposition-controlled areas, including points in strategic areas such as Tell Nabi Ayoub, and the military point in the village of Kokfeen in Jabal al-Zawiya, south of Idlib.

Talaa believes that Idlib will remain till the end of this year and the beginning of the next year the center for events in Syria; therefore, several military negotiations can be held besides political and diplomatic negotiations at the level of the foreign ministries between Turkey and Russia.

The negotiations can start at the point of expanding the “Adana” agreement to guarantee for Russia and the regime freedom of movement on land roads, especially the international highways “M4” and “M5”, according to Talaa.

Idlib: a defense line to Turkish national security

The Turkish withdrawal from observation posts is for military and security objectives mainly, not political ones, and, at the strategic level, Idlib remains an advanced defense point for Turkish national security, according to Talaa.

Turkey views the “Autonomous Administration of North and East of Syria (AANES)” as a threat to its national security, especially with its strong security and military arm (Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) deployed on the Syrian-Turkish borders.

Turkey’s presence in these areas guarantees its national security to prevent the AANES from spreading its influence on the entire Syrian-Turkish borders.

Talaa added that Turkey’s withdrawal objectives are related to “very precise and cautious” security arrangements. These objectives would become apparent when Turkey reinforces its position and defense lines in the opposition-held areas, particularly in Jabal al-Zawiya. The collapse of Turkey’s presence in Jabal al-Zawiya would mean a rolling collapse for the rest of the areas under the opposition’s control, making possible access to “Bab al-Hawa.”

A former Turkish refusal… observation points mean sticking to “Sochi” agreement

The Turks maintained their observation points in the areas under the regime’s control after the latter controlled parts of the southern countryside of Idlib, northern countryside of Aleppo, and Hama’s northern countryside, as a result of successive military campaigns by the Syrian regime backed by Russia and Iranian militias from April 2019 until the signing of the “Moscow” agreement. The agreement was signed on 5 March, between the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and came into force on the 6th of the same month.

The military analyst colonel Ahmed Hammadi said in a previous talk with Enab Baladi that the presence of Turkish observation points in the regime-controlled areas means that the Turks adhere to the “Sochi” agreement that maintains the current situation in Idlib.

The current situation in northwestern Syria is a start for the peaceful political process, and any change in this reality today in the region would threaten the political process, Hammadi said.

According to the leader of the SNA, captain Abdul Salam Abdul Razzaq, the presence of Turkish observation posts in the Syrian regime-held areas prevents the regime and Russia from gaining legitimacy by controlling areas south and east of Idlib and the western Aleppo countryside.

According to Abdul Razzaq, these points are used as a pressure card in any negotiations between Russia and the Turks and have a military surveillance role and function as a warning combat unit because they are located deep in the enemy’s sites.

This is what Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu referred to during his interview with the Turkish “CNN” channel on 17 September.

During the interview, Cavusoglu hinted that Idlib’s political process could end if his country did not reach an agreement with Russia.

Cavusoglu said, “regarding Syria, we need to maintain a ceasefire in the Idlib area first.”

The Turkish foreign minister added, “the ceasefire in Syria should continue, and there must be more focus on political negotiations,” noting that there should be a relative calm in Idlib province because if the fighting continues, the political process may be over.

A previous Russian proposal for Turkey to withdraw from its observation points 

Russia’s state-controlled news agency, Sputnik, reported last September from a source it did not name, that during a meeting at Turkey’s Foreign Ministry in Ankara, the Russian delegation submitted a proposal to reduce the number of Turkish observation points in Idlib; however, “no agreement was reached on this matter.”

The source mentioned that “it was decided to reduce the number of Turkish troops in Idlib and to withdraw heavy weapons from the area,” after the Turkish side refused to withdraw Turkish surveillance posts and insisted on keeping them instead.

While the Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper quoted a Russian source saying that Moscow was persuading Ankara to reduce its military presence in Idlib and withdraw heavy weapons during talks in Ankara.

The Russian source informed the newspaper that the Russian technical delegation presented its proposal, “but the two sides failed to reach an understanding in this regard.”

The Russian source added, “the second day of the talks saw a detailed discussion of the mechanisms for withdrawing part of the Turkish forces deployed in the region, withdrawing heavy weapons, and keeping Turkish observation points.”

The source pointed out that “Ankara insisted on maintaining all observation posts; nevertheless, it showed flexibility in the talks about withdrawing part of its troops with heavy weapons.”

He continued saying, “the discussions focused on the mechanisms of withdrawing to ensure that no provocations would occur during the withdrawal operations.”

Nevertheless, neither Turkish nor Russian official sources commented on this information.

Idlib is subject to the “Moscow” agreement signed between the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on 5 March, which provided for the creation of a “safe corridor” on the international highway “M4,” that links Aleppo and Lattakia provinces.

The agreement included joint Russian-Turkish patrols between Trinbeh village, west of Saraqib city (east of Idlib), and Ain al-Hawr village in western rural Idlib. It also stated that the southern areas of the international highway (M4) connecting between Lattakia and Aleppo of the “security corridor” would be under Russia’s supervision, while its north under Turkey’s supervision.

However, the “Syrian Response Coordination Group (SRCG)” documented 3,174 ceasefire violations by the Syrian regime and Russia that led to the killing of 33 civilians since the agreement came into force until 16 October.

These violations included targeting the opposition areas by artillery and missile bombs, drones, and Russian warplanes in several areas of Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo.

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