Following months of relative calm, Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib is once again a battleground, the scene of a bloody and widening military offensive by Syrian government troops pushing their way – with backing from Russia – into the rebel-held enclave.
It is the sharpest escalation in violence between the two sides since last summer.
The United Nations says that intense airstrikes and heavy bombardments have killed dozens of civilians, and both the UN and aid workers say the assault is forcing tens of thousands of civilians to flee to safer areas. According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the fighting is also forcing rebels to flee northward.
Nizar Abdel Kader, a retired Lebanese general, told The Media Line from his office in Beirut that a lack of progress in negotiations aimed at ending the Syrian civil war, now in its ninth year, has contributed to the uptick in fighting.
“I believe the timing of the offensive is tied to the failure of the 12th (round of the) Astana talks, the last meeting of which failed to yield results,” he said, referring to talks being held in the capital of Kazakhstan.
Turkey, which already hosts 3 million refugees, fears a further spill-over of Syrians in case of an all-out assault.
Abdel Kader said the assault was intended to put pressure on armed opposition groups to be more flexible at the negotiating table, adding that the latest meeting between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo signaled that both global powers were eager for a political solution.
“There is Russian-American agreement on the need for a political solution to the Syrian crisis, and that the crisis has gone on for too long,” he explained, adding that the offensive would probably weaken the various rebel groups, forcing them to the negotiating table.
Istanbul-based political analyst Ali Mustafa told The Media Line that Ankara was warning of a humanitarian catastrophe.
“Turkey maintains – contrary to what the Russians and Syrian regime are saying – that most of the places that have been bombed either by the regime or by the Russians have involved civilian infrastructure such as hospitals, clinics and education facilities,” he said.
Some parts of Idlib are under the control of fighters from the powerful Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaida affiliate on the UN’s “terror” list, and both Russia and Syria insist that in this offensive, they are going after “terrorists.”
For its part, Ankara insists that it is going to continue to help Syrian opposition groups.
“Turkey maintains it will continue to support al legitimate opposition groups that are fighting the Syrian regime and fighting the Russians,” Mustafa said.
If the Syrian and Russian offensive continues, it might bring them face to face with Turkish troops in northern Syria, where Ankara has maintained an armed military presence since August 2016, although this would hinge entirely on Moscow, he said.
“The answer to that depends on what role Russia plays,” he explained.
“Turkey doesn’t deal directly with the Syrian regime, but it does deal directly with Russia, and it needs guarantees from Russia that its interests and positions (inside Syria) will be preserved. The Syrian regime says the area is Syrian sovereign territory, and whoever is present in this territory, we will go after,” according to Mustafa.
Abdel Kader doesn’t think the escalation will lead to a direct military confrontation between Damascus and Ankara.
“In the event that clashes break out between them, they will be limited,” he told The Media Line, adding that Turkey must be appeased.
“In order to keep Turkey satisfied, its military presence must not be harmed in areas under its influence inside Syria close to the border,” he said, referring to Ankara’s determination to block the Syrian-Kurdish YPG militia from solidifying its hold there.
Turkey believes that the YPG is closely aligned with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an outlawed Turkish organization of Kurds that has long sought autonomy from Ankara, which considers the PKK a terrorist group.
Some reports behind the scenes suggest that Turkey has agreed to let parts of Idlib Province fall under Syrian government control in exchange for Turkish troops being allowed to take control of YPG held areas in northern Syria.
The latest surge in violence threatens an already fragile cease-fire agreement reached between Turkey and Russia last year in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi. The agreements called for joint Russian-Turkish patrols in the Idlib area.
Article written by MOHAMMAD AL KASSIM. Reprinted with permission from The Media Line