Is Idlib at the threshold of military confrontation or a Turkish-Russian land swap deal?

Syrian regime's soldiers and tanks in Idlib countryside - 2021 (al-Watan newspaper)

Syrian regime's soldiers and tanks in Idlib countryside - 2021 (al-Watan newspaper)

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Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

After the Syrian regime and its Russian ally neutralized Daraa in southern Syria and imposed settlement agreements throughout the governorate, news surfaced of a possible military operation by regime forces on the northwestern region to control the Aleppo-Latakia international highway (M4), prompting Turkey to take military moves in its areas of control. 

This news has opened the door to the possibility of a new land swap agreement between Turkey that supports the Syrian opposition and Russia, the regime’s backer. 

A previous territorial exchange deal took place between Russia and Turkey during the past four years, when the regime forces advanced in opposition areas, while Turkey controlled a new stronghold for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which Turkey classifies as a terrorist group. 

Syrian regime takes moves

Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Aleppo reported the advancement of the Syrian regime’s military reinforcements towards the southern Idlib countryside on 5 October. The reinforcements included two military columns equipped with heavy army machinery.   

The correspondent interviewed one of the regime’s forces elements accompanying the convoys, who confirmed that the military columns were heading to support forces positioned in the perimeters of southern Idlib countryside’s villages and the areas of Kafr Oweid, Sfohen, and Deir Sunbul, in anticipation of a new military operation.    

Social media outlets have circulated video recordings of Brigadier-General Suhail al-Hassan talking to his elements about an upcoming battle in Idlib. Al-Hassan is the commander of the Tiger Forces, a regime-affiliated military force that takes the spearhead role in battles against the opposition.

Russian state-owned news agency Sputnik cited a military source saying that heavy and qualitative military reinforcements have reached the front lines of Idlib’s southern countryside, including tanks, armored vehicles, combat machinery, and soldiers. 

Other Russian media outlets confirmed the sending of the regime’s military reinforcements towards northern Syria. 

Military moves or psychological warfare?

The relative calmness established in regime-held areas and the suspension of military action have allowed the regime to shift its focus to the northwestern region without worrying about any potentially dangerous fronts in some neglected areas.

Military analyst and expert Brigadier-General Abdullah al-Asaad told Enab Baladi that the regime’s military reinforcements on the front lines of Idlib serve it militarily and politically in conjunction with ongoing talks between Russia and Turkey.

Al-Asaad explained that the regime’s military mobilization is a message to Turkey that Russia still supports the regime and will not allow the Turkish military presence in Idlib to continue.

He added that the battle in its present form, whether launched by regime forces or remained limited to military mobilization, is primarily political.

Moreover, the pressures of dire living conditions in regime areas have started to trouble the regime; therefore, it became necessary to talk of or launch new military battles to alleviate the pressures and use them as an excuse or a distraction al-Asaad said. 

Political researcher at Jusoor Center for Studies, Wael Alwan, said that information circulating about a grand military build-up for the regime and Turkey in the front lines of Aleppo and Idlib are inaccurate, and the reinforcements, if any, are not as promoted.

According to Alwan, military build-ups are often used for political purposes, expecting the next few weeks to reveal where things are heading on the ground.

Idlib governorate is subject to a ceasefire agreement signed between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in March 2020. This agreement stipulated the establishment of a security corridor on the M4 international highway.

Russian military build-up in Idlib and Turkish mobilization of troops in Aleppo

While the Syrian regime was promoting a future military operation on northwestern Syria, Turkey started hinting at a new offensive towards the SDF-controlled areas, notably the city of Tel Rifaat in northern Aleppo. 

On 15 October, Turkish aircraft dropped leaflets in Tel Rifaat praising the area’s civilians for their “cooperation” with Turkish forces preparing to undertake military action in the city.

Reuters cited an unnamed senior Turkish official on 15 October, saying, “It is essential that the areas, notably the Tel Rifaat region from which attacks are constantly carried out against us, are cleansed.”

The source did not specify the timing and nature of any further Turkish military action, but the Turkish army and the Turkish National Intelligence Agency (MIT) are making preparations, according to Reuters. 

Two Turkish officials told Reuters that Erdoğan would discuss the issue with the United States President Joe Biden at the G20 summit of the world’s major economies in Rome at the end of October.

Commenting on the potential land swap deal between Russia and Turkey, Alwan said that Russia wants to secure the Hmeimim military airbase by controlling neighboring areas in the al-Ghab Plain in the northern Hama countryside. 

Alwan said that Turkey would not accept any territorial exchange or advancement of the Syrian regime and Russian forces towards northern Syria, adding that the successive Russian and Turkish control operations are the results of Russian escalation in one region followed by Turkish military action in another region. 

He also said that Turkey would only accept such an agreement under Russian pressures and threats of escalation and not of a prior deal.

The talks of a possible land swap deal between Russia and Turkey, including Idlib and areas of rural Aleppo, have brought to minds statements by former Turkish Prime Minister, Ahmet Davutoğlu, who said that Turkey had taken control of Jarablus after it abandoned the city of Aleppo, which the Russian-backed regime controlled at the same period.

In mid-September, Davutoğlu said that Turkey had helped evacuate the city of Aleppo in preparation for the regime and Russian control and to win Russia’s support for the Euphrates Shield operation launched to take control of Jarablus city.

The mobilization of forces and military operations in Syria coincided with international conferences and agreements among influential countries on the Syrian file.

Last September, Erdoğan, and Putin met in the Russian resort of Sochi with the Syrian file as a top priority on the meeting’s agenda. The two presidents did not hold a press conference or release a joint statement after the meeting, amid talks that “the situation in Idlib will remain the same.”

The 16th round of Astana talks was held last June without any significant developments on the ground, except for the cessation of military operations and reduction of bombing attacks by the regime and Russia against areas in northern Syria. Still, the bombing and mobilization of forces returned to their usual rates in mid-September.

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