The Syrian forces loyal to the President Bashar al-Asad and their allies, supported by the Russian air power, have scored majored victories in the last few weeks. On January 28, loyalist forces took Maarat al-Numan, a city of an estimated 110’000 inhabitants that was under rebel control since October 2012. On February 8 they occupied the strategic town of Saraqeb, as it makes the juncture of M4 highway (Latakia-Aleppo) and M5 highway (Damascus-Aleppo). Now, only a small portion of M5 highway remains under rebel control.
On February 10, six Turkish soldiers were killed as their positions came under artillery fire from the Syrian regime troops. Are we witnessing the risk of a major escalation in northern Syria? Will the Turkish army directly confront the advancing Syrian loyalist forces? And if so, are we facing the risk of a larger conflict between Ankara and Moscow?
The rapid progress made by the Syrian Army led to collapse of rebel defences. Rebels abandoned the village of El-Eis with its strategic hill overlooking the highway to the south of Aleppo. Syrian rebels, belonging to a variety of formations, yet all allied with Turkey, doubt that their fate has been sealed. They fear that an agreement between Turkey and Russia, within the Astana negotiations, had given the M4-M5 highways to regime control, and information on this accompanied with maps was circulating on social media already in autumn 2019. They feel that Turkey abandoned them during the Astana negotiations, and in spite of security guarantees and the deployment of Turkish military observation points in twelve positions in Idlib, western Aleppo, and northern Hama province, Turkey up to now did not effectively protect the rebels and the civilian population from the regime-Russia onslaught.
The new military escalation has led to yet another massive humanitarian crisis. Since early December 2019, estimated 700’000 civilian populations evacuated their towns and villages, escaping northwards. Moreover, loyalist troops are now only few kilometres away from Idlib – the province capital – that has an estimated 1 million inhabitants. The fate of those civilians seems to attract little interest by “international community”. Any attack on Idlib will triple the wave of displaced civilians, who are abandoned to their fate and have only few choices: they cannot return to their homes as they fear the vengeance of loyalist troops; they cannot leave Syria as the only roads through Turkey remains blocked. Their only option seems to move to refugee camps in the few pockets in northern Syria under direct Turkish military control.
Turkish Military Reinforcements to Idlib
On February 3, clashes in northern Syrian province of Idlib led to the death of 13 Syrian army soldiers and 8 Turkish military. On February 7, a convoy of 150 Turkish military vehicles entered the Syrian Idlib province. This brought the total number of Turkish military vehicles entering Idlib province in the last month to 1’000 vehicles. Turkish President Erdogan was quoted threatening Syrian regime forces saying: “We want the regime to immediately retreat to the borders stipulated by the Sochi agreement – in other words, to retreat behind our observation posts.” On February 10, 4 more Turkish soldiers died as their positions at Taftanaz airport came under artillery fire.
Turkish reinforcements have come too little too late; they aim at reinforcing Turkish military observation points, but are unable to change the military dynamics on the ground. In fact, 5 of the 12 Turkish military observation points (Morek, Maart Hitat, Surman, Tell Tuqan, and Rashidin) are now completely encircled by Syrian army units and their allies: in any major confrontation between Turkish military and pro-regime Syrian units will put those observation points under extreme danger. Moreover, while Turkish military are evidently superior to Syrian army in number and equipment, they will not risk confront the Russian forces, which are giving massive support to Damascus regime by its air force, but also with soldiers fighting on the ground.
In the last months Ankara scattered Syrian rebel fighters away from their major confrontation against the Syrian army fronts, to other battlefields. First, in October 2019 Turkey launched its “Operation Peace Spring” against Kurdish fighters in north-east Syria, by largely using Syrian opposition fighters. According to some sources, half of the attacking forces, or up to 14’000 fighters, were composed by Syrian rebels. Also, most of the casualties of the attacking side were from among the Syrian rebels: over 250 Syrian fighters compared to 16 Turkish soldiers deaths during this operation.
Moreover, in mid-January news emerged that up to 2’000 Syrian fighters were sent to Libya to assist the Libyan Provisional Government battling the forces of General Haftar. According to news reports, those fighters were paid monthly salaries of $2’000 for their services in Libya, and their expenses, transport, logistics and medical care covered by Turkey. By engaging Syrian opposition groups in its wars against Kurds in northern Syria, and in the power struggle in Libya, Ankara consciously weakened Syrian opposition groups and their position in Idlib province.
Following the recent fatalities among Turkish troops, Ankara contacted Moscow demanding to end the current escalation and a return to the “Sochi agreement”. That would mean that the Syrian army would not only give up its recent gains, but also withdraw from Morek and Khan Shaykhun, taken by Syrian loyalists in August 2019 after heavy battles. Russia has flatly rejected these demands.
Ankara today finds itself in an embarrassing situation. It has made a political alliance with Russia, yet it finds itself opposing Russia in conflicts in Syria as well as in Libya. Ankara has abandoned its NATO allies by buying Russian-made S-400 missile systems for an overall value of $2 billion, paying the price of being ejected from several NATO weapon programmes. Most of all, Turkey abandoned its European and American allies when it comes to the regulation of the Syria conflict when it abandoned the Geneva negotiations format and joining the Astana process, where it was alone next to Russia and Iran, two of the allies of the Syrian regime. Today, Turkey finds its forces overstretched, as it tried to play a geopolitical ambitious game in highly crowded region. Moreover, by shifting its alliances and confronting its traditional allies in more than one occasion, Ankara is alone in the quicksand of northern Syria.