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Will Turkey hit back if a military operation occurs in Idlib?

A member of the Syrian Civil Defence is checking a house bombed by the Syrian regime- 7 November 2020 (Syria’s Civil Defence / Facebook)

A member of the Syrian Civil Defence is checking a house bombed by the Syrian regime- 7 November 2020 (Syria’s Civil Defence / Facebook)

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Enab Baladi- Ali Darwish

The rebel-held governorate of Idlib in northwestern Syria has seen several developments related to the region’s future and the relationship between the two guarantor countries of the Astana peace process: Russia and Turkey, which back opposite sides in the war. A dispute has arisen between the two countries over the implementation mechanism used to bring agreements into effect inside Syria. 

The recent escalation of hostilities was marked when the Syrian government forces, backed by Russian airpower, bombed the opposition-held areas, especially civilian homes, resulting in casualties. Earlier, the Turkish forces withdrew from the observation post in Morek and part of the Shir Maghar post, north-western Syria. Besides, the Turkish forces patrolled single-handedly along the Aleppo-Latakia international highway (M4). On the other hand, the Russians were absent from three patrol missions on 15 September, 1 and 8 October. 

In a previous interview with Enab Baladi, Maan Talaa, a researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, suggested that the Turks will withdraw from the four observation posts located in the regime-controlled areas within a time frame.

Moscow’s ambassador in Damascus and the Russian President’s special envoy for developing relations with Syria, Alexander Yefimov, said in an interview with the pro-government local newspaper al-Watan, on 9 November, that the withdrawal of the Turkish troops’ observation posts from the regime-controlled areas is one of the terms of the “Moscow” agreement signed between the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on 5 March.

Last Friday, a surface-to-surface missile, fired by the regime forces, targeted Idlib’s western outskirts, followed by five Russian-Syrian airstrikes.

Nine civilians were killed, including two children, and a further 16 were injured, including five women and two children, due to the bombardment of Ariha by the Syrian regime and its ally Russia on 27 November. Besides, the bombing also targeted people in farming lands during the olive harvest, and civilians were killed and injured, according to the opposition’s Syrian Civil Defence (SCD).  

Russia’s airstrikes on civilian targets are pressure on Turkey and associated with factors

Information Unit Manager at Omran Center for Strategic Studies, Nawar Shaban, said in an interview with Enab Baladi that it has become clear that there is a disagreement over the common ground between the Russians and the Turks. 

The repeated Russian bombing is a message and a pressure tool on the Turkish side, caused by the failure to apply the M4 convention. In turn, Turkey withdrew its military posts in order not to be besieged if a military operation is initiated. Besides, Turkey supported all lines of contact with new weapons and placed new points for artillery. In other words, the Turks gave an indirect message to the Russians that they are also ready, and “the operation is a message between the two sides.”

The Russians are also hitting civilian targets, which puts additional pressure on the Turks. The Russian bombardment aggravates the security situation and jeopardizes stability. It also shows Turkey as a weak supporter of the opposition in the war-torn Idlib because the Russians are not only targetting the defence lines but also civilian infrastructure. 

This is a style of warfare that the Russians use to fight against Turkey from the inside and outside via targeting its forces in Syria militarily and at the same time targeting civilian points, according to Shaaban. 

In fact, the civilians are “certain” that the Turkish presence protects them, but with the repeated Russian airstrikes on civilian infrastructure, they started to believe that the Turkish presence does not protect them, but actually constitutes an additional pressure, which subsequently increases the escalation on the Turkish side. Consequently, tensions, and offensives against the Turkish side, might take place, according to Shaaban. 

The “Syria Response Coordination” Group documented the deaths of 25 civilians caused by the Syrian regime and its backer Russia’s  323 targetings (via warplanes, artillery, missile launchers, and drones) on the opposition factions- controlled areas, between 1 October and 8 November. 

The opposition-controlled areas, especially Jabal al-Zawiya and the city of Ariha, south of Idlib, are subjected to daily bombardment, according to Enab Baladi‘s correspondents.

Two Russian warplanes launched 13 airstrikes targeting the outskirts of Sarjah village in Jabal al-Zawiya on 7 November, according to the SCD.

1. Russia’s intense military escalation, “which is usually” faced by the residents of northwestern Syria, is linked to several factors, according to what researcher Abbas Sharifa published on his Telegram Channel. 

  1. Russian’s military escalation aims to exert pressure on Turkey in files related to Libya and the Karabakh region. This is currently excluded due to the state of calm prevailing in the Libyan file and the recent agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan sponsored by Russia. However, researcher Nawar Shaban does believe that there is a link between the files, according to a previous interview with Enab Baladi.
  2. Russia’s escalation may come within the context of pressure; Russia seeks to earn more political entitlements via charting courses of conferences such as the Sochi Conference and the Refugees’ Return Conference, recently held in Damascus.  
  3. The Russian escalation often comes before the rounds of negotiations between the Russian and Turkish committees regarding “de-escalation” agreements in Idlib, as a form of pressure to obtain negotiation gains through pressure and field escalation.

How will Turkey respond if a military operation is initiated?

Usually, before the Syrian regime starts a military operation, the Syrian regime’s random priming, and its supporter Russia, begins. First, the Syrian regime’s helicopters drop barrel bombs indiscriminately, then its warplanes target headquarters, military points, and other lines. With the beginning of the campaign, supply routes are cut off with intense bombing and aerial reconnaissance, according to a previous interview by a military commander in the National Liberation Front (NLF) to Enab Baladi.

Russia argues that Turkey has not committed to the agreements signed between the two countries, most notably the opening and securing of the Aleppo-Latakia International Highway (M4), which the Russians always use as an excuse to bomb opposition-controlled areas and threaten to launch military operations.

Russia has always asserted that Turkey is responsible for eliminating what it calls “terrorists” which was confirmed by the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, in his interview with Al Arabiya last September, by saying, “It is only necessary to target terrorist sites and eliminate their only remaining outposts on Syrian territory, and this responsibility rests with the Turkish side.”

Researcher Nawar Shaaban, in his speech to Enab Baladi, suggested the Syrian regime and Russia have escalated military actions to put pressure on the Turkish side, ruling out the possibility of launching a major military operation by the regime on opposition areas, as a result of the intense Turkish military presence in the Jabal Al-Zawiya region, south of Idlib.

In case of a military operation, Turkey will escalate in many axes: Idlib, and west of the Euphrates, and if one Turkish soldier is targeted, the Turks must respond due to the great pressure on the Turkish army in several axes and the pressure placed on Erdoğan, according to researcher Nawar Shaaban. 

According to a study by the US Institute for Study of War (ISW) published last April, the Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) reinforced their military positions by deploying nearly 20 thousand fighters in Idlib between 1 February and 31 March.

The ISW said 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.  

Following the “Moscow” agreement, the TAF established several military points, especially in Jabal al-Zawiya, the last of which was the military post in Qoqfin, to which the equipment and elements of the Morek post and part of the Sher Maghar post were transferred.

 

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