Idlib: The New Strategic Nucleus of the Battle over Syria

Posted on: Wed, 03/11/2020 - 13:42
Turkish forces stop Syrian regime's attack on Idlib [Reuters]

After Turkey’s unsuccessful ultimatum set for the Syrian regime and its Russian ally to commit to the Sochi Agreement, Ankara has targeted the Assad regime and its allies’ locations along the de-escalation zone by launching Operation Spring Shield. Russia has capitalized on Turkey’s anger by offering an agreement establishing new facts on ground during a Turkish-Russian summit on March 5th.

Tension in the region has escalated after an attack launched by the Syrian government forces with Russian support, on December 2019, succeeding in controlling large parts of the de-escalation zones, including the strategic towns of Ma`rat al-Numan and Saraqib. The Syrian forces have also forced the opposition forces to withdraw from Aleppo’s southern and western countrysides thereby gaining complete control over the Damascus-Aleppo (M5) road by mid-February 2020, coupled with overtaking the (M4) road linking Latakia to Aleppo. Turkey’s ultimatum and President Erdogan’s threats failed to stop neither the Syrian forces’ penetration nor Russian airstrikes in de-escalation zones, while half a million Syrians have been displaced since the year began.

Since its military intervention in Syria in 2014, Russia has sought to stabilise President Bashar Assad’s regime and restore his control over all Syrian territory. The Russian-Turkish strategic collaboration became evident when Russia agreed to Operation Euphrates Shield as the Turkish forces and their Syrian opposition allies crossed the Syrian boarder, establishing a zone free of ISIS and QSD in areas between Jarablus, Al-Bab and Azaz. In December 2016, Turkey and Russia agreed to a ceasefire and withdrawal of the Syrian opposition factions from east Aleppo, paving way to launching the Astana process which included Russia, Turkey and Iran. The agreement also established four de-escalation zones in Ghouta, Damascus, North Homs, and Idlib, and liquidating them in 2018.

After the failed tripartite summit in Tehran, Russia and Turkey reached a bilateral agreement in Sochi and agreed to preserve the remaining de-escalation zone. The Sochi Agreement provided the framework of a ceasefire in Idlib, establishment of a demilitarised zone, separation of extremists in opposition groups from moderates and opening of international routes between Hama-Aleppo and Lattakia-Aleppo. Russia agreed to the de-escalation zone in Idlib while betting on the Turkish role in strengthening the Astana process. Moreover, Russia sought to widen the rift between Ankara and Washington, and was prompted to give a green light to Turkey’s launch of Operation Olive Branch with the aim of driving out the YPG militants from the Afrin region. The Russia-Turkey rapprochement would also put pressure on President Trump to withdraw from east of Euphrates in favor of restoring Syria’s control of the area with the help of Moscow.

Despite Turkey’s success in establishing a demilitarised zone and 12 control points, Tahrir al-Sham’s power appeared limited after taking control of Idlib in late 2018. Meanwhile, the Russian and Syrian breaches of the Agreement continued with renewed attacks on Idlib, whenever Turkey and the United States neared agreeing on establishing a safe zone in eastern Euphrates.

The 12th round of the Astana meetings has failed as the Syrian government’s incursion continued in Idlib, whereas the blame was on Turkey’s non-adherence to Sochi agreement. The Syrian forces succeeded in controlling several strategic towns along the Hama-Aleppo road. Moscow agreed on a ceasefire in preparation for Astana’s 13th round. Turkey expressed its security concerns during the tripartite summit held in Ankara. The truce agreement reached in August was recognised and paved the way for the Constitutional Commission.

Turkey and Russia remain cautious about the American military presence and would-be ‘withdrawal’ from eastern Syria after the Islamic State’s defeat, although Erdogan successfully persuaded Trump to change this policy and initiated the establishment of a safe zone in northeastern Syria. This shift enabled Turkey to launch its Operation Peace Spring launch with the pursuit of controlling the border strip between Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad. Russia then offered Turkey a pledge to pressure QSD forces to withdraw from the Turkish-Syrian border strip east of Euphrates, to strengthen its own position, and to prevent Turkey from establishing a safe zone near the border. The second Sochi Agreement called for the revival of the Syrian-Turkish Adana border agreement.

Washington seem to have abandoned its Kurdish allies, while keeping forces on the ground to protect the oil wells from the incursion of the Assad regime. Russia’s strategy has refocused on Idlib. Russia’s military operation has threatened Turkey’s border control after Ankara sent reinforcements to help strengthen the existing control points. Syria has ignored the ultimatum and threats, and Ankara decided to attack through opposition factions, retaking Saraqib and a major route on (M5) and (M4) roads and ceasing the Syrian surge in opposition areas.

President Erdogan has ended the implementation of the 2016 agreement with the European Union (EU) and opened borders for refugees. Turkey has also requested a NATO meeting regarding Article 4 of the Alliance Charter and called upon the international community to impose a no-fly zone in northwestern Syria. However, the allies’ response did not meet the Turkish expectations. It launched Operation Spring Shield targeting the Syrian aviation capability over Idlib to gain advantage on the ground and recover the opposition’s losses prior to the Russian-Turkish summit. Further moves by Turkey remain dependent on the US position and an upcoming summit with Russia is likely to determine Ankara’s options in Idlib.