Possible pressure factors to end regime’s shelling on Idlib

Syrian women participating in a protest denouncing massacres committed by Syrian regime forces, Russia, and Iran - 29 July (Female Survivors Union Facebook account)

Syrian women participating in a protest denouncing massacres committed by Syrian regime forces, Russia, and Iran - 29 July (Female Survivors Union Facebook account)

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Enab Baladi – Amal Rantisi

Since last June, the intensified military escalation by the Russian-backed Syrian regime forces on northwestern Syria has led to the killing of 65 civilians, including women and children. The escalation was met with timid international reactions and absence of official moves on Turkey’s part, that is one of the three guarantors along with Russia and Iran of the Astana talks stipulating calm and ceasefire in the de-escalation zone of Idlib.   

 On 25 July, the Syria Response Coordination Group (SRCG) issued a statement saying that the regime’s escalation has caused the displacement of over 4,300 civilians, the majority of whom were from villages of Idlib’s southern countryside in the period between early June and 25 July, which also witnessed 791 breaches to the ceasefire agreement.  

For their part, residents of northwestern Syrian regions responded by organizing protests to condemn the escalation and pressure key forces to stop the regime’s bombing.

Hundreds of protesters gathered in front of Turkish observation points in Jabal al-Zawiya and burned elastic tires near Turkey’s monitoring post of Motaram in Idlib countryside to pressure Turkey to take moves against Russia’s supported regime’s attacks. The protesters denounced Turkey’s dishonoring of its responsibilities to cease the regime’s constant shelling of Idlib countryside towns and villages.     

Protests are messages to local and international parties

Idlib’s protests included different actors and segments of society, including the Female Survivors Union, an independent civil gathering for female survivors of Syrian regime prisons. The Union mentioned on its Facebook account that dozens of women in Idlib have participated in a protest condemning massacres of regime forces in Jabal al-Zawiya in northern Syria and Daraa in the south.       

The Union’s members held banners addressing the international community, saying that “Syrian civilians are targets of regime’s massacres.”

Political researcher at Omran Center for Studies, Maan Talaa, told Enab Baladi that these protests aim at sending messages to multiple parties, mainly the Syrian regime and Russia, that the region’s population are rooted in their land and stand by the resistance option against the Russian occupation and regime’s bombardment. 

Talaa continued saying that these messages are fundamental and strategic because they bring key parties’ attention to the idea that there are active people in the northwestern region denouncing the Russian intervention in Syria, at least on the moral and symbolic level.

According to Talaa, the protests express blame and anger against the Turkish side and other international actors who deal with the Idlib file with “inaction and implicit condoning.” 

Why now?

Talaa pointed out to Enab Baladi that precise security calculations govern the possibility of stopping Syrian regime’s shelling operations on Idlib, on the part of the Russian and Turkish sides on the one hand and the European and international sides on the other hand.  

For about two years now, the fate of the de-escalation region has become bound by technical and military negotiations held on the level of Russian and Turkish defense ministries. However, the negotiations proved a failure most of the time and were transferred into political decisions, further promoting the advancements of the regime in the region, Talaa said.    

In recent years, regime forces adopted a land nibbling strategy by fighting on many battlefronts and winning them successively, taking advantage of military superiority and control of airspace. Opposition factions failed to stop the regime’s military advancements and limited their response to attacking regime sites and carrying out explosion operations to exhaust regime forces.   

Talaa added that frontlines between regime and opposition regions had seen some relevant stability after the last “nibbling” operation that put regime forces in Saraqib city on the international highway M4 linking Aleppo and Latakia. However, Russia has been attempting lately to increase its pressure relying on political variables, including the alleged win of Bashar al-Assad in May’s presidential elections and the debate on the cross-border and cross-line humanitarian aid issue.    

According to Talaa, bombing operations carried out by regime forces are messages from Russia, for they mostly affect local structures instead of targeting strategic sites. The offensives also test the Turkish side and the readiness of local forces.    

On another level, the international community deals with the Idlib file with fear of possible new refugee waves; therefore, it handles the region with humble positions similar to when the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) agreed unanimously to extend cross-border humanitarian aid to Syria in early July. 

Military analyst Colonel Ziad Hajj Obeid told Enab Baladi that Russia wanted to promote the success of their policies in Syria and re-float Bashar al-Assad on the political scene by aiding the regime’s shelling of the Jabal al-Zawiya area to force its residents out and then break into it.

Both the regime and Russia realize that they cannot win the battle in Jabal al-Zawiya unless they evict its residents, for the area’s rugged terrain increases the effectiveness of counter-attacks that would cause the regime significant losses, Obeid said.   

On military strategy, Obeid said that factions of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the influential force in Idlib and its countryside, and the Syrian National Army (SNA) affiliate National Liberation Front (NLF) should attack the regime’s central positions and use Grad rockets to destroy regime’s advanced military posts, thus transforming the battle from the stage of defense to attack. 

Obeid added that the high morale of opposition fighters compared to regime forces’ low ones could add weight to the factions’ counter-attacks against the regime.

Faint echoes of de-escalation

Talaa pointed out to Enab Baladi that indicators of factors able to end the regime’s military escalation are missing within the foreseeable future as major forces (the United States and Russia) have conflicting interests in Syria and their agreement is the primary factor to end military operations in the region.

Whatever little consensus established between these two forces was created in the UNSC’s latest session regarding the reauthorization of the Bab al-Hawa border crossing as a gate to UN humanitarian aid to Syria.  

According to Talaa, negotiations aiming to stop escalations in northwestern Syria are futile because they only push the issue upfront without reaching any political consensus.    

He added that negotiations’ space keeps narrowing as security consensus throughout Syria is becoming more subject to regional considerations than local ones, making the process of reaching a political consensus in the country a challenging task. 

In other words, a change in established security boundaries in Syria is subject to political changes, which are not in sight, which returns the ceasefire matter to security agreements between Turkey and Russia.        

As for possible pressure means, Talaa said there should be political and diplomatic actions as part of intensive campaigns by political actors. In addition, UNSC representatives and envoys should hold political briefings, press conferences, and diplomatic campaigns on military developments in Syria.   

The Russian side must be reached for negotiations in economic and political issues as this might deter the regime’s offensives.

However, these political efforts require organized local politics that would make pressure means more effective. The Syrian opposition must expand their political representation in critical negotiations to include other actors inside or outside Syria besides the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC), Talaa said.

Four determinants of Turkish position on the Idlib file

Talaa said that there are four determinants under which Turkey handles the Idlib file.

The first determinant is that Idlib is considered an advanced defense point for vital regions with a security impact on Turkey, particularly after the Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield operations that succeeded in ending the Autonomous Administration of north and east Syria (AANES)’ concept of cantons. 

He added, as long as the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian wing of the banned Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) classified as a terrorist organization in Turkey, continues to exist in the northeast region, the Idlib file will be a strategic one for Turkey.

The second determinant of the Turkish position on the regime’s escalation is that Turkey does not want to descend into direct war with other parties, namely the Russian side and the regime, because the fighting would shuffle political cards and move battles to other countries and for these reasons Turkey prefers resorting to negotiations. 

The third determinant is reflected in Turkey’s policy of restraint and strategic preparations in cases of regime forces’ break-ins. If the regime’s military operations did not lead to break-ins, then Turkey will remain a mute spectator. 

Talaa added, the fourth determinant is the nature of the Turkish presence as observation points in areas under the regime’s control. Turkey’s withdrawal from its military base in Morek town, north of Hama, stands as a negative example of what things can head to in case of interest clashing in the near future.  

In October 2020, Turkish forces withdrew completely from the Morek observation post in Hama’s northern countryside, which was Turkey’s largest military point in regime-controlled areas.  

Accordingly, the Turkish position at this time is delicate and cautious, and any response, whether by attacking back or repelling missile strikes, will disturb political agreements on the region, Talaa said.

Talaa said that the Turkish position is likely to head towards negotiations to discuss economic issues or simply release pressure. The Turkish side might reach a new ceasefire agreement with new conditions after negotiating with the Russian side with an open possibility for new advancements by the regime.

Regime forces, backed by Russian forces and Iranian militias, took control of cities and towns in Hama countryside, Aleppo, and Idlib, as a result of successive military offensives, which began in February 2019 and ended with the signing of the Moscow ceasefire agreement under which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, agreed on 5 March 2020 to stop military escalation.

The agreement provided for organizing joint Russian-Turkish patrols on the M4 international highway between Trinbeh town in eastern Idlib and Ain al-Hawr village in western Idlib countryside, besides establishing a security corridor to the north and south of the M4. 

However, regime and Russian forces did not abide by the ceasefire agreement, as many civilians in Idlib’s southern countryside areas were killed by the regime’s artillery shelling on residential neighborhoods, most notably in Bayloun village to the south of Idlib last July, killing and wounding more than ten civilians from the same family.

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