Hussam al-Mahmoud | Hassan Ibrahim
October was a bloody month for the people of northwestern Syria, the last stronghold for the Syrian opposition, following systematic attacks launched by regime forces and key ally Russia on residential neighborhoods, medical facilities, infrastructure, and popular markets, using weapons loaded with explosive and incendiary materials.
A military escalation in an area governed by “de-escalation” and “ceasefire” agreements which led to the death of 66 civilians and the wounding of more than 270, renewing the tragedy of displacement of more than 120,000 people, making it the most violent month of the current year in terms of the number of deaths.
The escalation was accompanied by three narratives adopted by the regime’s media outlets and those close to it, the first linked to the attack on the Military College in central Homs city, and the second to the ongoing Israeli bombing of the Gaza Strip and its targeting of the Damascus and Aleppo international airports.
The third narrative held that the regime forces intended to launch a ground operation on the northern regions in order to implement the Moscow Agreement while blaming Turkey for procrastinating in its implementation, which passed without comment from Ankara and was met with a response from the opposition factions in Idlib.
In this file, Enab Baladi sheds light on the reality of northwestern Syria after the escalation by the regime and Russia and discusses with Russian, Turkish, and Syrian analysts the reasons for the high frequency of targeting, the Turkish silence regarding it, the goals of Moscow and the regime regarding it and the possibility that the escalation will draw up new agreements.
Three narratives of Idlib escalation… Moscow agreement, most recent
Hours after the vicinity of the Military College in Homs was attacked by a drone on October 5, the regime forces unleashed their anger on the north, and the regime’s Ministry of Defense held what it considered “armed terrorist organizations supported by known international parties” responsible for the bombing (in reference to the opposition factions in northern Syria).
Those close to the regime accused the opposition factions in the north of being behind the attack that killed 89 people, including cadets, and injured 277 others during an officers’ graduation ceremony and demanded “revenge and immediate retaliation.”
On October 12, the Ministry of Defense considered the bombing of Damascus and Aleppo airports by Israel part of “the ongoing approach to supporting extremist terrorist groups that the Syrian army is fighting in the north of the country, which constitute an armed arm of the Israeli entity (referring to the forces of Syrian opposition).”
The regime close-tied Al-Watan newspaper spoke in more than four separate reports about the regime forces’ intention to launch a ground operation in the north, pointing out that the escalation is a message addressed to the administration of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the necessity of implementing the Moscow ceasefire agreement regarding the northwestern region.
The newspaper reported that Russian forces strengthened their military presence in two towns in the southern countryside of Idlib near the contact lines with the opposition factions, in addition to other reinforcements that arrived at the Abu al-Duhur Military Airbase in the eastern countryside of the governorate.
It considered that Turkey was “procrastinating” in implementing the agreements and re-discussed the Aleppo-Latakia international highway (M4) and the regime’s desire to restore it, based on informed security sources that it did not name.
Victims and massacres
The escalation and bombing campaign led to the death of 66 people, including 23 children and 13 women, and the injury of 270 people, including 79 children and 47 women, and three volunteers in the Syria Civil Defense, according to the rescue Syria Civil Defense agency.
During October, the Syria Civil Defense teams responded to 287 attacks by regime forces and Russia, including 160 artillery attacks and more than 70 missile attacks, in which hundreds of artillery shells and missiles were used.
The Civil Defense considered that the escalation in the region comes within the context of a systematic policy aimed at destabilizing it, spreading terror among safe civilians and preventing them from living their normal lives, describing October as a bloody month for the Syrian people.
The head of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Paulo Pinheiro, said during a briefing before the United Nations General Assembly on October 24 that Syria is witnessing the largest escalation of hostilities in four years, pointing to the “total disregard for civilian lives.”
The US Embassy in Syria also condemned the attacks launched by Russia and the regime in the north and stated that “the Assad regime and Russia did not even attempt to provide a reasonable explanation for these atrocities,” according to what it published on November 1.
The northwestern region of Syria is subject to the Moscow (ceasefire) agreement signed between Russia and Turkey on March 5, 2020, between the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and stipulates the following:
- A ceasefire along the confrontation line between the regime and the opposition.
- Establishing a security corridor six kilometers north of the main international highway in Idlib (M4) and six kilometers south of it, which is the road that connects the cities controlled by the Syrian regime in Aleppo and Latakia.
- Deploying joint Russian-Turkish patrols along the M4 road, starting on March 15 of the same year.
This was preceded by another agreement signed by Russia and Turkey within the Astana agreement in 2017 to “reduce the escalation,” followed by the Sochi agreement in September 2018, which stipulated a ceasefire in the Idlib area, but the regime and Russia constantly violated these agreements.
M4 is a point of understanding
The M4 international highway connects Latakia and Aleppo to al-Yarubiyah on the Iraqi border and extends parallel to the Turkish border. It is considered a vital road and is characterized by strategic importance, linking Aleppo, the economic capital, to the ports of the coast, and the Syrian regime wants to regain control over it to restore commercial exchange.
The M4 road defines a control map for several local and regional forces, and is considered the main artery linking important strategic areas and areas under the control of multiple parties.
The strategic road takes center stage with any movement of figures in regional countries or local forces active in the Syrian file, whether through statements, visits, or movements on the ground.
Last January, the M4 returned to the media forefront in conjunction with the Turkish rapprochement with the Syrian regime.
In a previous interview with Enab Baladi, researchers considered that the issue of opening the road is linked to regional and international understandings and is not primarily related to the issue of rapprochement or raising the level of communication between them. It is linked to the understandings of the Sochi conference and the course of the Astana peace talks.
Two meetings of al-Fath al-Mubin; No contact with Ankara
The al-Fath al-Mubin operations room, which manages military operations in Idlib, announced, on October 7, what it described as an urgent meeting of its leadership regarding the escalation and stated that all military options are on the table, and it will take what “achieves revenge for the people and deters the enemy.”
Military correspondents and media outlets close to it published video recordings showing the firing of artillery shells and missiles towards regime positions and forces behind the contact lines in the countryside of Latakia, Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo.
Latakia governorate announced through its media office that four casualties had arrived at Tishreen University Hospital as a result of rocket shells originating from opposition-controlled areas in northern Syria.
The head of the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), the political umbrella of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), Ali Abdul-Rahman Kedda, denied, on October 9, the existence of any phone calls or international communications at the Salvation Government level in order to calm the situation with the regime, pointing out that the factions are in the best situation and are in a state of alert to respond to any military attack, with readiness for all scenarios.
Kedda stated during a press conference, in his answer to a question posed by Enab Baladi regarding communication with the Turkish side as a guarantor of “de-escalation,” that the agreement was compromised and far from the Salvation Government, and if the area was bombed, the response would be the option, pointing out that “there might have been agreements outside the region that the Salvation Government was not aware of.”
In conjunction with the continued escalation, al-Fath al-Mubin room was sporadically publishing news about the targeting of regime forces’ sites without an official tally of the extent of casualties and damage, as the regime does not comment on the killing of members of its ranks in this way of targeting.
On October 26, a meeting for imams and preachers was held under the auspices of the Ministry of Endowments, Call, and Guidance, with the al-Fath al-Mubin operations room, entitled “The Military Reality in the Liberated Areas,” in the presence of the HTS commander, Abu Mohammad al-Jolani.
On the same day, the Ministry of Defense of the regime’s government announced the destruction and downing of eight drones loaded with explosive shells in the Hama and Aleppo countryside, which it said belonged to what it described as “terrorists.”
The Hama National Hospital carried out the funeral of four dead civilians and soldiers from the village of al-Rabiah, north of Hama governorate, who were killed in bombing by opposition factions that targeted the village itself via drones, according to regime media.
A day after the meeting, al-Fath al-Mubin announced the targeting of regime forces in the city of Qardaha in the Latakia countryside and the town of Shataha in the Hama countryside and that two helicopters were hit at the Nayrab Military Airport east of Aleppo.
Moscow escalates; Ankara is silent
Turkey did not comment on the escalation in northwestern Syria despite its possession of 125 military sites in Syria, including 57 in the Aleppo countryside, 51 in the Idlib region, two sites in the Latakia countryside, and another in the Hama countryside. It is also a guarantor party in the ceasefire agreements in the region.
On the other hand, Moscow did not comment on the escalation either, as its planes continued to launch raids on residential neighborhoods, cities, and towns in the region.
Al-Watan newspaper reported, citing unnamed sources, that the goal of Russian aircraft continuing to accompany regime forces in northern Syria is to put pressure on what the newspaper described as the Turkish “operator” and “guarantor” for implementing the “ceasefire” agreement.
Omer Ozkizilcik, a Turkish analyst focusing on the Syrian crisis, inter-rebel dynamics, and Security Policy, told Enab Baladi that Turkey had largely implemented the Moscow Agreement, but it was Russia that had withdrawn from conducting joint patrols, pointing out that Ankara had demonstrated that the corridor had been secured, but the road had not been opened for free traffic due to attacks by Syrian regime forces.
Ozkizilcik considered the escalation to be a Russian tool to put pressure on Turkey, ruling out a ground attack by the regime forces on Idlib, as Turkey does not allow the regime’s air forces to fly over Idlib and does not permit a ground attack.
The Turkish analyst pointed out that the Turkish army’s presence in Idlib makes any ground operation a mere illusion.
Anton Mardasov, the non-resident Russian scholar in MEI’s Syrian Program of the Middle East Institute, told Enab Baladi via email that Russia and Turkey are constantly exchanging accusations about violating the agreements, and in fact, each side has the right to do so.
Moscow recalls Ankara’s obligations that were not fulfilled under the March 2020 memorandum, while the Turkish side recalls the obligations that Moscow failed to implement under the October 2019 memorandum.
Escalation is permanent and can be linked to new circumstantial factors every time. For example, al-Assad actually thwarted Turkey’s proposals to normalize relations because he believed that they were beneficial to Erdogan during the Turkish elections.
Anton Mardasov, Russian political analyst and scholar
Mardasov, who is also a non-resident military affairs expert at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), believes that the head of the Syrian regime realizes that he is no longer suitable or useful for Ankara, politically, in addition to the state of economic deterioration that the areas under the regime’s control are suffering from.
Ankara began the path of political rapprochement openly with the Syrian regime for the first time on December 28, 2022, and was able to achieve a group of meetings with the regime under the auspices and mediation of Moscow first before Iran became involved in these discussions, which turned into a “quartet,” in which the level of meetings varied until the meetings of foreign ministers.
This path took a downward trend after the Turkish elections, which was evident in the same parties meeting once after the elections last June, with talk of preparing for another meeting that did not materialize due to conflicting work schedules and meetings of the ministers of the parties, according to Russian statements.
On September 20, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov explained that Moscow is currently working to improve a road map regarding relations between Ankara and Damascus, indicating that Moscow calls for a quadripartite meeting to be held on normalizing Turkish relations with the regime as soon as possible.
No quit from the understandings
International relations analyst Mahmoud Alloush said that Turkey attaches importance to preserving the fourth de-escalation zone, considering that the escalation practiced by the regime and its allies is aimed at pressuring concessions related to the field situation in northwestern Syria.
Alloush believes that this escalation does not significantly threaten the status quo in northwestern Syria under the Turkish-Russian understandings, and Ankara and Moscow still attach clear importance to maintaining the situation in the de-escalation zone.
The regime is also trying to exploit the situation and put more pressure after the attack on the Military College in Homs to push the opposition to retreat from some areas or obtain additional gains in the region, without considering that this military escalation threatens to collapse the current situation in northwestern Syria, Alloush told Enab Baladi.
It is not possible to ignore what is happening in northwestern Syria or not link it to what is happening in northeastern Syria in light of an American desire to strengthen the influence of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and its separatist project. However, currently, there is a state of stagnation in the Syrian field and political status quo, and I do not see a change in the foreseeable future for this situation.
Mahmoud Alloush, International relations analyst
According to the Syrian analyst, the military escalation is considered field messages and pressure from the regime and its Russian ally on Turkey, which finds itself in need of sending a strong message to Russia and the regime that the threat to stability in the “de-escalation” zone threatens the state of the region and the security of Turkey, without any indications of expanding the scope of operations for the regime and its allies in the region.
For his part, Russian political analyst and scholar Dmitry Bridzhe told Enab Baladi that Russia sees the existence of Idlib as separate from the Syrian regime and the presence of armed opposition groups in northwestern Syria as a danger and threat to the Syrian regime, with the possibility of something changing in the region and the return of military action again.
According to Bridzhe, Russia is sending a message to the groups in these areas saying, “Do not go too far in any battles against the regime’s areas,” and it is Russia’s strategy to maintain its bases in Syria.
Moscow has understandings with Damascus, specifically on the Syrian coast, so that some areas, within certain understandings, are at Moscow’s disposal to carry out operations in the Middle East region.
This includes the commercial field, as Russia uses Syrian ports to send goods to other countries to bypass sanctions, given that Syria is an important platform for Russia at the present time, said Bridzhe.
Regarding the absence of a Turkish reaction to the escalation in northern Syria, Bridzhe said that Turkey will not respond because there are existing understandings with Moscow.
In light of the current escalation with the West, Turkey will not seek escalation with Moscow, despite the existence of a non-public confrontation between the two parties in foreign policies, concluded the Russian expert.
Influential thorny relationships
Despite Russia’s efforts to culminate its diplomatic efforts between its two allies with a meeting that brings together Erdogan and al-Assad, the nature of the relations between the parties of this triangle partly explains the lack of consensus in one place and its absence in another.
Since the beginning of the path of Turkish rapprochement with Damascus, the Syrian regime has been stressing the necessity of Turkish withdrawal from Syrian territory and that Turkey should stop supporting the opposition in northwestern Syria, which Ankara has responded to by confirming that it will remain in Syria for security reasons related to the borders and the presence of armed groups that Ankara classifies as “terrorist” in northeastern Syria.
On September 23, Turkish Defense Minister Yaşar Güler stressed a set of Turkish conditions for withdrawal from Syria, which include holding elections in Syria, reaching a new constitution, and forming a government that includes all segments of the people.
These conditions intersect with what was published by the Turkish newspaper Yeni Şafak, which is close to the government, on June 26, which included four Turkish conditions for normalizing relations with Damascus.
It was represented by reaching a constitutional amendment, fair elections in Syria, an honorable and safe return of Syrian refugees, and cooperation on the issue of “fighting terrorism,” specifically with regard to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (Ankara sees the SDF as its extension in northeastern Syria).
On the other hand, despite participating in several files and political tracks at regional and international levels, including the Syrian file and the situation in Azerbaijan, the Turkish vision does not seem close to the Russian one regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the file of Sweden’s membership in NATO, the expansion of the alliance, and acceptance of Ukraine’s accession.
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