Idlib, Syria Photo: Osama Naser, pexels.com
by Josh Lalonde
For the past several years, the Syrian civil war has seen a slow but steady progression towards victory for the Syrian government under Bashar al-Assad, which has now regained control over nearly the whole country.
In recent weeks, however, there has been a dramatic escalation in northwestern Syria — that is, the province of Idlib and nearby Aleppo and Latakia, the last region under control of the armed opposition. Operation Dawn of Idlib, the government’s ongoing offensive to recapture this region, is embroiled in the complex geopolitical calculations of foreign backers of both the government and opposition, with implications that extend well beyond the Middle East.
The military situation in Idlib
Pro-government forces, including units of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and Iran-backed militias, began operations to recapture at least part of Idlib province in April, 2019. After a series of ceasefires broke down in the summer and fall of 2019, a new attack began in December 2019.
The Syrian government’s ongoing offensive to recapture Idlib is embroiled in the complex geopolitical calculations of foreign backers of both the government and opposition, with implications that extend well beyond the Middle East.
The campaign’s main objectives are to clear the suburbs of the city of Aleppo (from which opposition fighters had been shelling government-held areas), to regain control over the M5 highway linking Aleppo and Damascus, and to capture Saraqeb, a city located at a major highway crossroads.
Opposing the government are a variety of mostly Salafi-jihadist groups including the former al-Qaeda affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), its close ally Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), and the Turkish-backed umbrella group National Liberation Front (NLF). HTS and the NLF had previously fought each other for territorial control, but they formed an alliance to repel the government offensive.
Pro-government forces captured large portions of the region in late January and early February, including the strategic towns of Ma’arat al-Nu’man and Saraqeb. They also regained control over the M5 highway for the first time since 2012.
In response to these rapid Syrian military advances, Turkey began sending hundreds of troops to reinforce the 12 observation posts it had established in Idlib under a 2018 de-escalation agreement with Russia. Thousands of Turkish-backed fighters from Turkish-controlled regions north of Idlib province were also transferred to the front lines and provided with Turkish armoured vehicles and anti-tank guided missiles.
On February 3, Syrian government forces shelled a convoy of Turkish reinforcements, killing five soldiers and three civilian contractors, one of the few instances of direct combat between the Syrian and Turkish militaries since the beginning of the war. In response, Turkey sent further reinforcements to the region; the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated that approximately 7,600 soldiers and 2,765 vehicles had been mobilized. Turkey also appears to have provided fighters with surface-to-air missiles used to shoot down two Syrian Arab Air Force (SAAF) helicopters.
On February 27, Turkish-supported opposition forces re-captured the town of Saraqeb from the Syrian government. This was a significant loss, cutting off the M5 highway only a few weeks after it had been reopened — and the first notable success for the opposition since the beginning of the government offensive in December.
Later that same day, airstrikes carried out by either Russia or the SAAF — it’s not clear which — killed at least 33 Turkish soldiers. This brought the total of Turkish casualties since the beginning of February to 54.
Turkey has publicly blamed the Syrian government rather than Russia for the attack, likely due to geopolitical considerations. So in response, Turkey struck dozens of pro-Damascus targets, with Turkish defense minister Hulusi Akar claiming they had “neutralised” 2,212 soldiers and destroyed “eight Syrian helicopters, 103 tanks, 72 artillery and rocket launchers, and three air defence systems.” On March 1, Turkey also shot down two Syrian fighter jets after the SAA destroyed a Turkish drone.
The humanitarian situation
The impact of the offensive on civilian residents of the region has been disastrous. According to Mark Lowcock, UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, 900,000 people have been displaced since December 1. Up to 50,000 of these have no shelter in the midst of winter cold. There have reportedly been over 300 civilians killed, mostly by Russian and SAAF airstrikes.
Idlib already contained approximately one million internally displaced persons from other regions of Syria. This included many who have been displaced several times as the front lines shifted during the war.
In particular, Idlib was the destination of many fighters and their families from other parts of Syria, who were relocated there as part of various ‘reconciliation’ agreements formed when those areas were recaptured by the government. It is in part because there is nowhere else for fighters to be relocated that the fighting in the most recent offensive has been so intense.
At the same time, Turkey has closed its borders with Syria, leaving Idlib residents no means of escape from the conflict. Turkey already hosts approximately 3.6 million Syrian refugees, and anti-Syrian sentiment has been rising in recent years. Turkish President Recep Erdoğan has, on numerous occasions, stated that Turkey would not accept any more Syrian refugees, and Turkish border guards regularly shoot at Syrians trying to cross the border.
The Turkish invasion of northeast Syria in October 2019 was in part motivated by the desire to set up a so-called “safe zone” where Syrians could be sent. Preventing any further influx of refugees is one of Turkey’s main goals in supporting the opposition against the government’s Idlib offensive.
On February 27, following the airstrikes that killed 33 Turkish soldiers, the Turkish government announced that it would no longer try to prevent Syrian or other refugees from reaching Europe. Prior to this, since 2016, Turkey has basically served as one of the EU’s border guards, preventing Syrian migrants and others from reaching Europe in exchange for funding from the EU.
The Turkish suspension of this arrangement was likely meant as a threat to EU and NATO countries — a move designed to gain their support in pushing back the Syrian government offensive in Idlib. Turkish news outlets reported that hundreds of migrants had arrived at the Greek-Turkish border, hoping to cross into Europe. Others had travelled to the Turkish coast hoping to reach the Greek island of Lesbos by boat, which prompted Greece and Bulgaria to increase border patrols to prevent any migrants from entering.
The Turkish government claimed on March 1 that 76,000 migrants had crossed into Europe since the decision to open the border, but Greek officials stated that “all attempts” to cross had been prevented. Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis announced the same day that Greece would “not be accepting any new asylum applications for one month”.
One of the main factors driving the Idlib offensive has been the role of the foreign backers of the various armed parties — in particular Turkey and Russia.
Turkey has, from the early stages of the conflict, supported the armed opposition and served as a transit hub by which thousands of foreign fighters travelled to Syria to join groups such as ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra (now part of HTS), and TIP. It has also directly intervened in Syria on several occasions since 2016, resulting in Turkish control over large regions in the northwest and north of the country.
Russia, on the other hand, has backed the Syrian government politically since the beginning of the war, and militarily since 2015. Russian air support has been essential for the government’s recapture of significant areas once under opposition control. Meanwhile, Russian intelligence and special forces have been used to shore up depleted SAA units.
Although they support opposing sides in the conflict, Turkey and Russia have cooperated since 2017 to negotiate de-escalation zones in different parts of the country. One such de-escalation zone was established for Idlib in a separate agreement between Turkey and Russia in September 2018.
Under the agreement, Russia would “take all necessary measures to ensure that military operations and attacks on Idlib will be avoided and the existing status quo will be maintained.” Turkey would be responsible for reopening the M4 and M5 highways and for establishing a demilitarized zone from which all “radical terrorist groups” would be removed.
Neither Turkey nor Russia lived up to their commitments under the deal, as HTS continued to operate within the demilitarized zone and attack government forces, the M4 and M5 highways remained closed, and the Syrian government carried out attacks and airstrikes on positions within Idlib.
This agreement now seems to have completely fallen apart, with each side blaming the other for its violation. There has consequently been an increase in the rhetorical aggression between the two parties in their respective state media. Russia has accused Turkey of supporting al-Qaeda linked groups and of firing missiles at Russian planes, while Turkey claims that Russia had lost credibility as a participant in the peace process. However, both sides have taken steps to maintain the strained cooperation, holding discussions between Turkish and Russian officials concerning the offensive.
The increasing tension between Turkey and Russia has implications beyond Syria, notably in Libya, where they also back opposing sides in a civil war. Turkey backs the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), based in Tripoli, while Russia supports the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by General Khalifa Haftar.
The LNA, with Russian support, launched an offensive to capture Tripoli in April 2019, which has killed up to 2,000 people and displaced 146,000, according to the UN. Turkey, on the other hand, signed a military cooperation agreement with the GNA in December 2019 and has reportedly sent over 4,000 Syrian fighters under its control to Libya to fight for the GNA. This includes “at least 130 former Islamic State or al-Qaida fighters” according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
A separate agreement signed in November 2019 established maritime boundaries between Turkey and Libya, which would allow Turkey to drill in offshore gas fields in the eastern Mediterranean. Greece and Egypt both objected to the deal, which is part of an ongoing dispute between the EU and Turkey over maritime boundaries in the Mediterranean, and rights to gas deposits in the area.
On March 1, the LNA signed an agreement with the Syrian government which would reportedly allow for Turkish-backed Syrian fighters captured in Libya to be deported back to Syria.
It is still possible that Turkey and Russia will be able to reach an agreement ending the offensive, likely with the Syrian government maintaining control over much of the area that it has captured since December. It is also possible that the conflict between the two powers will continue to escalate and break out into open warfare — though that is an outcome that both parties are trying to avoid.
The Syrian government seems determined to regain control over the M4 and M5 highways, and may be satisfied to leave a pocket surrounding the city of Idlib temporarily under opposition control. The opposition, however, have nowhere to retreat and are therefore willing to fight to regain the territory they have lost during the offensive, as they did in Saraqeb.
No matter how the situation develops, it is the civilians of Idlib who will suffer, whether under continued rule by HTS and its allies or aerial bombardment by Russia and the SAAF, in the ruins of their homes or in displacement camps near the Turkish border.