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Damascus brushes off Ankara's threats as Assad's forces make gains in Aleppo

Syrian forces have expelled opposition factions 12 miles from the vicinity of the city of Aleppo, opening the highway between Aleppo and Damascus at a time when Ankara is stepping up its rhetoric and threatening to launch a military attack.

While Ankara continues to send its military reinforcements to Idlib, with long convoys of artillery, tanks and personnel carriers crossing the border daily, Syrian regime forces have managed to make important strategic progress that has eluded them over the past years.

On Feb. 16, regime forces seized major opposition strongholds located in a large area north and west of the city of Aleppo, which includes around 15 cities and towns — most notably, Hraytan, Anadan and Kafr Hamra. The regime also captured the last remaining opposition strongholds in the city of Aleppo, including al-Yarmoun, al-Rashideen 4th Sector and parts of Al-Zahra Association Quarter.

These changes in the military control map made the closest opposition point to the city of Aleppo 20 kilometers (12 miles) away. This pushed the regime's supporters to take to the streets Feb. 17 to celebrate “securing Aleppo.”

On the other hand, the opposition was dealt a heavy blow after losing its main strongholds north and west of the city of Aleppo. These areas had remained under its control since 2012, and it saw them as a cornerstone for its stay there.

The opposition fortified its last remaining parts in Aleppo city, namely al-Yarmoun and Dahra Abd Rabouh, with a network of trenches, tunnels and barricades. This turned any attempt to attack it from the front into a suicide mission. But opposition fighters found themselves forced to withdraw after they were trapped in an area surrounded on three sides by regime forces.

In order for the opposition to compensate for some of its losses, the Syrian National Army of the Free Syrian Army launched on Feb. 20 an attack on sites where regime forces advanced east of Idlib in an attempt to retake the town of Nayrab, 9 kilometers (5 miles) from Idlib.

Turkish artillery and missile launchers violently paved the way for the attack, which led to the destruction of a number of armored vehicles of the Syrian regime. But the opposition failed to keep its positions or make tangible advances, especially after Russian aircraft destroyed an opposition tank, six infantry vehicles and five pickup trucks.

As the attack raged on, the Turkish Ministry of Defense announced Feb. 20 that two of its soldiers were killed and five others wounded in an airstrike in Idlib. This brought the number of Turkish soldiers killed by the Syrian regime shelling to 15, in three separate incidents, which could further complicate the situation and push Ankara toward further escalation.

Whatever agreement might be reached by Ankara and Moscow to resume a cease-fire in the fourth de-escalation zone, it does not appear that the Syrian regime would give up the strategic gains its forces have achieved in the city of Aleppo and in its northern and western suburbs — even if Ankara turns to the military option.

The fourth de-escalation zone mainly includes Idlib province and parts of the countryside surrounding the provinces of Aleppo, Hama and Latakia. A cease-fire was imposed in this zone after the signing of the Sochi Agreement between Ankara and Moscow Sept. 17, 2018.

Under this agreement, Turkey set up 12 observation points in the vicinity of the de-escalation zone, but the Syrian regime repeatedly violated the cease-fire and launched three ground attacks at intermittent periods. It claimed Ankara failed to fulfill its obligations under the agreement, which is to create a buffer zone at a depth of 15 to 20 kilometers (9 to 12 miles), free of heavy opposition weapons and “terrorist groups.”

Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad described his army's progress in the Aleppo area as a victory. In a televised speech on Feb. 17, he said the battle in the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib will continue regardless of some “empty sound bubbles coming from the north.” Assad was referring to the Turkish threats.

For his part, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave the Syrian regime what he described as the final warning.

In a speech at the parliamentary group meeting of his ruling Justice and Development Party in Ankara, he asserted that his country has “made all preparations to carry out its own operation plans in Idlib” and said this military operation was just a “matter of time.” 

He noted that talks with Russian officials on ending the bloodshed in Idlib had failed to produce results. Erdogan asserted that talks will continue, however, adding, “But we are far from meeting our demands at the table."

The differences between Ankara and Moscow over Idlib appear to be so deep that two rounds of negotiations have failed, each lasting for two days. The first was held in Ankara on Feb. 8, and the second in Moscow on Feb. 17.

On Feb. 18, Turkish presidential spokesperson Ibrahim Kalin said at a press conference in Ankara that “returning to the Sochi deal is the baseline of Turkey's policy for Idlib," adding that Turkey had rejected documents and maps proposed by Russia.

Moscow is trying to draw a new agreement according to the current field data and without surrendering the gains that the Syrian regime has achieved in its attacks on the fourth de-escalation zone. Since the beginning of the last attack on Jan. 16, the regime has regained control of an area of ​​1,500 kilometers (932 miles), displacing 900,000 people to the rest of the opposition-held lands, according to the United Nations.

In a parallel development, Ankara insists Syrian regime forces withdraw beyond the Turkish observation points; otherwise, the Turkish army will launch its offensive at the end of February, the deadline set by Erdogan. According to the current map of control, 13 Turkish military points are now located in regime-controlled territories.

Turkish observation points play a major role in pressuring Moscow and belittling the importance of the strategic gains that the Syrian regime achieved in its attack on the de-escalation zone.

Although regime forces managed Feb. 11 to control the international highway between Aleppo and Damascus, known as the M5 highway, Turkish forces stationed at the Maar Hattat point 8 kilometers (4 miles) south of the city of Maarat al-Numan blocked this highway.

A video report by Russia-24 Feb. 14 showed Turkish soldiers standing in front of roadblocks on the M5 highway, which appeared to be empty. But the channel's correspondent said that according to the current situation, only Russian vehicles can pass through the highway.

The M5 highway is of strategic importance, as it represents an economic lifeline for Syria, especially as it connects the capital, Damascus, with the economic capital of the country, Aleppo. It also passes through the centers of Homs and Hama provinces.

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