President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, met for an emergency summit in Moscow on March 5, in a last-ditch attempt to defuse the confrontation in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib. Syrian opposition fighters and Turkish forces in Idlib are fighting President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its Shia allies, who are closely supported by Russia. The latest round of fighting in this war-torn corner of Syria has claimed hundreds of lives, caused a mass exodus of thousands of Syrian refugees, and threatens to escalate into a regional war between Turkey and Russia (see EDM, February 27). In an interview with Russian TV, al-Assad stated that the main objective of the Idlib campaign is the total “liberation” of the so-called “Idlib de-escalation zone” up to the Turkish border, including Idlib city. After that, the Syrian leader plans to send the SAA and its allies into the eastern half of his country “to destroy our enemies and end the occupation by the United States” (Gazeta.ru, March 4).
The main Syrian oil and natural gas deposits are in northeastern Syria—at present guarded by a small contingent of US troops together with Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). The al-Assad regime badly needs the income generated by those oil fields (see EDM, October 28, 2019, November 14, 2019). A financial collapse is rapidly developing in Syria, whose economy has been devastated by the civil war, raging since 2011; its cities, including the prewar economic capital Aleppo, are in ruins. President al-Assad’s regime has survived by receiving military and other supplies from Moscow and a constant cash flow (along with additional military aid) from Tehran. But as the territory al-Assad controls and the size of the population he now needs to feed have expanded, Iran began running out of money because of the draconian US sanctions and the depressed international oil market. Russia is not ready to step in to refurbish the Iranian cash flow, and the Syrian pound is in a freefall (currently over 1,000 pounds to the dollar) (Hurriyet Daily News, February 17). The situation is dire: a civil revolt or new revolution may begin on economic grounds in territories the regime has “liberated.” Al-Assad wants to declare victory in Idlib, hoping that will attract badly needed financial and reconstruction aid.
The Russian military supports al-Assad’s drive to “liberate” all of Idlib. The Russian defense ministry accused the radical opposition Islamists led by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) of deliberately provoking the pro-al-Assad forces to begin the offensive operation in Idlib. Defense ministry spokesperson General Igor Konashenkov charged Turkey with directly supporting the HTS and the Turkish-organized Syrian National Army (SNA—former Free Syrian Army). According to Konashenkov, the Turkish military observation posts in Idlib have turned into fortified safe havens in which HTS, SNA and other opposition fighters could hide from bombardments carried out by the SAA and the Russian Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily—VKS). Konashenkov additionally denounced the West for “falsely” blaming war crimes in Idlib on the SAA and the VKS, while ignoring the intrusion of Turkish forces “equivalent to a mechanized division” to support the Syrian opposition, which he branded as “terrorists” (Militarynews.ru, March 4).
According to the Russian defense ministry’s television channel Zvezda, all opposition and Turkish forces must eventually be cleansed from Idlib. If Turkey is allowed to keep any inch of the province, it may use it to influence internal Syrian politics or create some government alternative to al-Assad. But at present, a fraction of Idlib may be left to the Turks temporarily as some sort of “buffer zone” (Zvezda, March 5). The Turkish military deployed additional troops to Idlib to stop the pro-al-Assad offensive. On February 27, a Turkish military column in Idlib was allegedly hit by pro-al-Assad forces, killing at least 34 Turkish soldiers (Interfax, February 29). Turkey replied by using long-range guns, tactical- and medium-range missiles of US and Chinese design to hit the SAA and its allies inside Idlib as well as strike airbases close to Aleppo and Hama. Turkish F-16 jets restrained from flying anywhere deep into Syria to avoid clashes with the VKS, but they still managed to shoot down two SAA Su-24M bombers and an L-39 light attack/trainer jet by firing air-to-air missiles at them from the border area. The Turks used attack and reconnaissance drones to barrage SAA and allied forces and to provide GPS targeting info. According to the Turkish command, they shot down three jets, eight helicopters and three drones; destroyed a hundred and fifty-one tanks and eight anti-aircraft systems; and killed over a thousand pro-al-Assad fighters (Lenta.ru, March 4).
The Turkish military did not directly engage the SAA but provided drone and fire support to the NSA and other opposition fighters who, for the first time in the Syrian civil war, obtained serious firepower superiority and air support to engage the regime. To date, the main battles have centered in and around Saraqib, an important intersection of highways M5 and M4. Saraqib changed hands as SAA units retreated in disarray under precision-targeted Turkish bombardments. Crack pro-al-Assad troops, including Hezbollah fighters, were sent in, together with Russian advisors, to retake and keep Saraqib, but the opposition has been constantly harassing them as the Turkish howitzers and missile launchers deployed on the border went into action each time the regime forces tried to hit back. The forces loyal to Damascus previously enjoyed essentially unlimited air and artillery support. But Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force have reportedly suffered serious casualties in Idlib (Gazeta.ru, March 3).
The military situation has now reached a stalemate. Turkey’s 155-millimeter T-155 Fırtına self-propelled howitzers (designed by Samsung) have been pounding the SAA from the border, out of reach of any VKS counterattack due to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty. But the T-155s have a range of 40 kilometers—with all areas east of Saraqib out of reach. The opposition cannot push farther without artillery support; while the SAA cannot advance on Idlib city—16 kilometers west of Saraqib. After almost six hours of talks in Moscow today (see above), Putin and Erdoğan agreed to declare a ceasefire on the existing line of control beginning March 6, and to organize joint Turkish-Russian patrols along the M4 highway, which passes through opposition-controlled territory (RIA Novosti, March 5). Authorities in Moscow made no announcements of any troop withdrawals in Idlib. These may be declared after Putin talks to al-Assad. With no troop pullbacks, the latest Idlib ceasefire could once more prove short-lived.