Clashes between the Syrian government forces and rebels in Idlib have significantly increased following Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s visit to Syria early September, marking a turning point for the Russian-Turkish cease-fire deal in the last rebel bastion.
The Syrian government forces and Russian fighter jets have intensified their attacks on Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and other jihadist groups’ positions in and around Idlib province. In the past two weeks, Zawiyah Mountain between Idlib and Hama, Gap Plains to the southwest of Idlib and the Latakia countryside have been witnessing unprecedented heavy bombardments since the Russian-brokered cease-fire deal on March 5.
In response, HTS and other jihadist groups are trying to stop the advance of the Syrian troops by mortar fire and rocket attacks on Saraqib and Kafr Nabl along the M5 highway that links the country’s north and south. Meanwhile, the foreign jihadist groups deployed in Jabal Akrad are increasing their attacks on the Latakia countryside. HTS, the dominant group controlling Idlib, is considered a terrorist organization by many Western powers and Russia. A Turkish checkpoint near Jisr al-Shughour also came under attack during the clashes, prompting a retaliation attack by the Turkish armed forces.
The escalation has taken a dangerous turn after the Russian Center for Reconciliation in Syria at the Khmeimim air base accused HTS of plotting a conspiracy by using chemical weapons in an effort to provoke the international community.
Turkey, in turn, has scaled up its military deployments to Idlib’s de-escalation zone that was set up as part of the March 5 deal that also calls for the reopening of the critical M4 highway linking the country’s east and west and cleansing the Idlib area from radical elements. The number of Turkish military vehicles dispatched to the area has exceeded 9,750 over the past seven months.
The Syrian government, meanwhile, has reinforced its positions in southern Idlib and western Aleppo with dispatching its troops to eastern and southern Idlib from Deir ez-Zor where they became idle after the fighting in the area mainly abated. Damascus’ patience with Idlib has worn thin as now it wants to concentrate its force on the eastern Euphrates where American troops are deployed along with Turkish and Kurdish forces.
Intensifying clashes are the latest sign that the technical talks between the Turkish and Russian militaries are stumbling. In the last round of the talks Sept. 16 in Ankara, Russia reportedly asked Turkey to disband its checkpoints in the Syrian-government controlled areas of Idlib’s de-escalation zone, decrease the number of its troops, withdraw its heavy weapons in the region, and remove the armed rebels from the vicinity of the M4 highway.
Aiming to counter the Russian pressure, Turkey demanded Syrian government forces and the Kurdish groups to leave control of Manbij and Tel Rifaat to the Turkish forces and elimination of the People's Protection Units (YPG), which Turkey considers a terrorist organization. Both sides refused to accept each other's demands.
Forced out of Afrin during Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in 2018, the YPG relocated its forces in the Tel Rifaat countryside until the Syrian government forces took over the control of the region. The situation in Manbij city, which is currently under the control of the Manbij Military Council, has changed after the American troops withdrew from the area in 2019. The city has mainly come under control of the Syrian troops and Russian military police, with the latter conducting patrols on the city’s streets.
In Idlib, crowds organized a series of protests against the Turkish military presence in the areas controlled by the Syrian government troops including in Morek and Surman, demanding Turkey to pull out from Syria completely.
The Turkish Defense Ministry said, “Some civilian-looking groups led by [the Syrian government gathered around the Turkish] observation points 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9 in the Idlib de-escalation zone.” The protesters attacked observation post 7 before being dispersed by the Turkish forces, the ministry added in a tweet.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s position on withdrawal demands is intransigent. “If Turkey withdraws from Syria, would Syria suddenly regain its peace and prosperity?" Erdogan said Sep. 17, in response to criticism about Turkey’s ongoing crossborder military operations in Syria.
Turkey's insistence on holding its ground in Syria has also reshaped the military calculations on the ground. Briefing the Syrian opposition groups about the content of the technical meetings with Russia, Turkey warned them against a possibility of a new battle in Idlib. Ankara has also intensified the training programs it is providing to the rebels in more than 150 military training camps and reinforced more than 140 positions where the Turkish troops are located.
The financial collapse triggered by the American sanctions, impeding political talks and reconstruction process have fueled the fears of Damascus and Moscow that the three-way territorial split of Syria could become permanent. Although both parties want to break the deadlock in Idlib, Damascus is troubled with Moscow’s slow-moving game plan.
During his visit to Damascus Sept. 7, Lavrov stressed the need for the elimination of all the obstacles to the political process, as he was introducing a new economic aid package that is crucial for the reconstruction of critical electricity plants and hydrocarbon refineries in Syria.
Responding to criticism of the perceived Russian leniency toward Turkey, Lavrov said, “The government-controlled part of the Idlib de-escalation zone has increased considerably since the signing of the Russian-Turkish agreements.”
Although one of the most important obstacles before the political process is the stagnant constitutional talks in Geneva, the ongoing process doesn’t rule out the military option in Idlib.
Turkey has failed to implement the provisions of the March 5 deal including the reopening of the M4 highway and setting up a 6-kilometer-long (4-mile) buffer zone on both sides of the road.
So far joint Turkish-Russian patrols on the M4 highway have failed to achieve anything other than buying time for the deal. On July 22, the Turkish-Russian troops completed after 22 attempts the joint patrol along the M4 stretching from Tarnaba west of Saraqib to Ain Hur village in the Latakia countryside. But in August, Russia decided to suspend the patrols after radical groups in the area targeted the Turkish and Russian troops on Aug. 18 and Aug. 25. Accusing HTS of the attacks, Lavrov said the patrols “would resume shortly, as soon as the situation has calmed down,” in an interview with Al-Arabiya Sept. 21.
After Turkey failed to reopen the M5 highway as called for in the Sochi deal between Ankara and Moscow, the Syrian government forces stepped in and seized control of the road through a military operation in June 2019. The recent escalation on the Idlib front is turning the heat on Turkey by hinting at a similar military operation for the M4 highway.
The recent bombardments show that Damascus may be planning to seize control of the highway through capturing Zawiyah Mountain and Gap Plain. Jisr al-Shughour, a stronghold of the jihadist groups dominating Idlib, stands as the most challenging point on the way to the M4 highway. The mountainous, forested terrain between Jisr al-Shughour and Latakia portends a fierce battle. Aside from setting off new tensions between Turkey and Russia, such a battle would also trap the armed jihadist groups in a narrow line between Idlib city and the Turkish border.
Wary of a new round of escalation with Turkey, Moscow continues its coordination with Ankara. The delegations are expected to meet for a new round of talks following the joint Russian-Turkish military exercise on the M4 highway on Sep. 21, aimed at increasing the efficiency of coordination in emergencies.
In sum, although Ankara’s game plan is to maintain the status quo in Idlib through military deterrence, further escalation in Idlib seems likely. Russia is dragging along Turkey to a new turning point at a time when Ankara has already been disturbed by its inefficacious Libya policy abroad and deepening financial woes at home.