Russian officials and the pro-Kremlin press have been praising the successful offensive against Idlib by troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The northwestern Syrian province is the last stronghold of the anti-al-Assad opposition. All other such opposition-held areas across Syria have already been overrun and mostly devastated by forces loyal to Damascus, aided by Iranian-backed Shia militias and massive bombing campaigns carried out by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) Air Force and the Russian Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily—VKS). As “de-escalation” zone after “de-escalation” zone was retaken by the Syrian government and its on-the-ground allies, opposition fighters and civilians taking refuge there were given the option to surrender heavy weapons and be bussed into Idlib. Eventually, these wartime resettlements more than doubled the province’s estimated prewar population of 1.3 million. The al-Assad regime, with Russian support, is now pushing into the Idlib zone, taking over town after town, pressing the opposition against the Turkish border. In August 2019, the SAA captured Khan Sheikhoun, a settlement south of Idlib on the strategic M5 highway from Damascus; and on January 28, 2020, it took Maarat al-Numan—Idlib province’s second-biggest city, also located on the M5 (Kommersant, February 13).
On February 6, opposition fighters abandoned Saraqib, a strategically important intersection of highways M5 and M4 (the latter links the Mediterranean port city of Latakia to Aleppo and further skirts the entire length of the Syrian/Turkish border). The Russian Ministry of Defense congratulated the pro-al-Assad forces for forcing the retreat of radical opposition Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) Islamist fighters out of Saraqib. The Syrian state is now close to establishing a secure connection from Damascus through Homs, Hama to Aleppo, and from Latakia to Aleppo using the M5 and M4 highways (Militarynews.ru, February 12).
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan denounced al-Assad’s offensive, which is being supported by the Russian VKS. The leader of Turkey demanded that forces loyal to Damascus withdraw from their positions in Idlib, as stipulated in the September 2018 agreement reached in Sochi between him and President Vladimir Putin. Turkey has begun to reinforce its own forces in and around Idlib, with Erdoğan threatening to push back the SAA and other pro-al-Assad units if Moscow does not compel them to leave voluntarily before the end of February 2020. The SAA and the Turkish military have already clashed with each other, resulting in Turkish casualties. The exact number of Turkish soldiers killed or wounded is not yet fully clear, but deaths during this past month could have exceeded 20. In retaliation, the Turkish military has been hitting SAA positions, reporting hundreds of Syrian fatalities. The pro-Kremlin online publication Vzglyad accuses Erdoğan of “hysteria” over the Syrian victories and the collapse of the HTS and other pro-Turkish armed opposition fractions. But, Vzglyad contends, Erdoğan’s saber-rattling will not help—the al-Assad forces will not retreat since they enjoy the support of VKS jets, which control the sky over Idlib (Vzglyad, February 13).
According to state TV channel Rossiya’s main news program “Vesti,” President Erdoğan and Turkey have been strategically defeated in Syria. With Moscow fully backing al-Assad and not ready to give any special consideration to Turkish interests in Syria, Turkey’s president is isolated within the Arab and Muslim world and suffers strained relations with the West. Erdoğan has no option but to recognize al-Assad’s regime under Russian auspices and withdraw from Idlib. According to “Vesti,” in mid-February Turkish and Syrian intelligence chiefs met secretly in Moscow under Russian patronage. After the Syrian civil war is over with al-Assad the victor, Moscow will sign a comprehensive cooperation (de facto alliance) treaty with Damascus, and Erdoğan will have no option, but to follow suit, the Russian news outlet asserts (Vesti, February 19).
It seems the Kremlin has seriously underestimated Erdoğan’s resolve to push back against pro-al-Assad forces while doing his best to avoid a direct clash with Russia (apparently mistaken by Moscow as a sign of Erdoğan’s weakness). The Turkish and Russian heads of state had at least two recent telephone conversations regarding Idlib—the last on February 21—with no success. Turkey continues to demand “a full implementation of the September 2018 Sochi accords,” meaning an unequivocal withdrawal of the pro-al-Assad forces. The Kremlin, in turn, insists, “Terrorist activity in Idlib is unacceptable” and “Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity must be absolutely upheld.” In other words, the Russian view is that the SAA and VKS have the sovereign right to attack and destroy the HTS or anyone they consider “terrorists” anytime in any part of Idlib, and the pro-al-Assad forces will not be withdrawing from any sovereign Syrian territory (Militarynews.ru, February 21).
The Russian military accused Turkish forces of directly supporting the opposition fighters on the battlefield and of providing them with Stinger Man-Portable Air-Defense Systems or MANPADS (produced in Turkey on license) to attack VKS aircraft, which are now forced to fly combat sorties over Idlib at heights over 5,000 meters to avoid hits. During February 2020, Russian VKS attacks have hit and killed Turkish soldiers, while Russian military advisors embedded with SAA units routinely find themselves under Turkish artillery fire. But so far, both sides have avoided publicly acknowledging that they are already shooting at each other so as not to create a formal casus belli (Vedomosti, February 20). On February 27, the Turkish state-run Anadolu news agency reported from Idlib that Saraqib was retaken by “moderate opposition groups”—a major military setback for both al-Assad and the Russians (Anadolu, February 27). The Russian military countered: All attacks on Saraqib have been successfully repulsed (Interfax, February 27).
Ankara has declared that the Turkish military is ready to go in and resolutely force the SAA out of Idlib. Russia has put forth “proposals and maps” to resolve the crisis by redrawing the Idlib “de-escalation” zone, thus legalizing the latest SAA advances; but Turkey refuses to accept such amendments (Izvestia, February 27). Erdoğan recently announced that he would hold a summit in Istanbul, on March 5, 2020, with Putin and possibly with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, to try to resolve the crisis (Interfax, February 26). The Kremlin countered: Putin has other plans for March 5, and French/German participation is at any rate undesirable (RIA Novosti, February 27). Turkish-Russian expert-level consultations continue even as the confrontation in Syria escalates. But time is apparently running out for Moscow and Ankara to reach a modus vivendi.