In the history of wars – whether large or small – there is a stylistic and methodological tendency to overstate some of their episodes, most of the times subjectively chosen. Remembered as such either after the names of enemy commanders or the locations where confrontations took place, many of these martial actions were ennobled with epithets such as “historical” or “memorable”. Those labelled as “historical” especially, being scarcer, remained in the collective and historical memory as defining landmarks of the entire war.
In the current context of conflicts in the Middle East, the Syrian civil war is an obvious exception, as not just a few, but all its episodes have been proclaimed as historical – from Deraa to Aleppo and Raqqa, through Afrin and Kobane, Al-Hasakah, all the way to Damascus’ Ghouta and the ruins in Palmyra. They were all historical, heroic, strategic, decisive, epic and so many such appellations, depending on the imagination, interests and positions of the players involved as well as on the frontline’s capricious evolution. Unfortunately, this “historicity” has been snobbishly ignoring the huge dramas and humanitarian crises, the massive material, social and identity damages, caused by “military exploits”, and which are the real reasons for the breakdown of a people transformed into waves of wandering ghosts in search of everyday survival.
Starting late 2019, we have been witnessing a new “historical episode” in Syria, where everybody is involved whether they want it or not, and if they want it they do it away from the spotlight and the public eye – whether Syrian, Arab, regional or international. And this episode is called Idlib, where for a few weeks now there has been a real war, which has already produced around one million refugees. Why is this district and city so important and what is its weight in the equation of war and peace in Syria? The following lines intend to provide a few possible answers to these questions.
Why Idlib ?
The Idlib province (or governorate, muhàfaza) and its capital bearing the same name, situated in northwest Syria by the Turkish border, and the neighbouring provinces of Hama, Latakia and Aleppo are, nowadays, the last refuge and stronghold of the armed Syrian opposition as well as Islamist-Jihadi groups led by the former Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda. Successively named “Jabhat Al-Nusra” (the Al-Nusra Front) and “Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham” (Syrian Liberation Front), it has been fighting, ever since 2011, for the ousting of the Assad regime. This area is also a stronghold of groups of fighters from the former Islamic State (ISIS). From a military perspective, the province controls the only border crossing in north-east Syria, through Bab Al-Hawa; it has in the north a common border with Afrin (the capital of the Rojava province, where a Kurdish minority resides) and controls, through Saraqib, the highways connecting with Aleppo in the north-east and Damascus, as well as the strategic motorway M4, which goes to the port city of Latakia.Following the agreement reached in Sochi, in May 2017 between the Russian Federation, Turkey and Iran, the Idlib province was declared a “de-escalation zone”, while Turkey was required to continue its actions against the Islamist rebels and insurgents. Following the incursion of the Turkish military in the Syrian territory, Ankara didn’t go through with its commitment and provided military and logistic support to the Assad opposition, including to Al-Qaeda, which is why the relationship between Recep Tayyp Erdogan and Vladimir Putin has become increasingly tense.
Late February 2020, the loyalist Syrian army launched a large-scale offensive to take over the Idlib province, however, the operations degenerated into clashes with troops from the Turkish observation points and the conflict spread rapidly – a few tens of Turkish troops were killed by Syrian airstrikes and several Turkish drones were destroyed. In retaliation, the Turkish attacked and shot down three Syrian fighting jets and two air defence systems, while several Syrian troops were killed by Turkish air and artillery strikes.
President Erdogan appealed to the European Union and NATO several times, asking for support to his offensive against Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, but these calls remained unanswered. And Erdogan’s reaction was swift, as he opened the Turkish borders for the refugees in his country, an action whose effects threaten the countries of the European Union with a new crisis.
A New Humanitarian Crisis
UN officials believe that the most recent crisis in north-western Syria has taken “a terrible toll”, mostly on civilians. The fighting in Idlib has led to Russia and the Assad regime being even accused of war crimes, the two, of course denying all of it, while the refugee exodus continues.
Idlib, 4th of March. The latest refugees – where to? (Source: Khalil Ashawi/Reuters)
Between Putin and Erdogan
I have written these lines in the context of the latest meeting between Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyp Erdogan, which took place in Moscow, on the 5th of March, with the stated purpose of reaching a consensus and putting an end to the humanitarian tragedy in north-eastern Syria, as well as identifying a new way to prevent a further escalation of the relationship between Turkey and the Russian Federation. The fact that reaching this consensus is getting more and more difficult, is proven by a series of indications: the unprecedented exchange of accusations between Moscow and Ankara, which blame each other for the violation of the Sochi agreements in 2018 regarding the disarmament of the Idlib province and the cessation of military support that the two players provide to the Damascus regime (Russia with its aviation, artillery, military police and fighters from Wagner - the famous mercenary “company”) and the insurgents respectively (Turkey helping the Syrian rebels and the Islamist-Jihadi groups). A no less worrying signal is also given by the fact that, while waiting for the Turkish president’s visit to Moscow, the Russian Federation started, on the 28th of February (meaning after 34 Turkish soldiers being killed in the Syrian air raids) to swiftly strengthen its military presence in Syria and in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Some Arab analysts see, in these steps, an indicator for the level of tension the present situation has reached and which, in the absence of an immediate agreement, could lead to military confrontations between the Turkish and Russian armed forces in Syria.
To what extent can one count on the tensions between Putin and Erdogan as a determining factor for a compromise between the ambitions of the leader in Kremlin and those of the Golden Horn leader, in the competition over Syria?
It is true that between Turkey and the Russian Federation there are clear and major differences, when looking at the reasons and strategies which have determined both their military interventions on the chessboard of the Syrian civil war. But it is also true that Moscow and Ankara are kept together by common interests requiring from each of them extreme caution and concern for keeping their conflicting disputes in an area as limited as possible. This explains the regular public reiterations, by both the Russians and the Turkish, of their commitment to the agreements reached in Astana and Sochi. If Russia manages to avoid and keeps on avoiding to be dragged in a dirty war of attrition, Turkey too does not have the willingness and the resources to engage in a similar war of attrition against a Syrian regime which is less and less willing to obey Russian or Iranian orders and directions, precisely out of the need to prove that it is independent, powerful and capable to fight against “foreign conspiracies” at any cost. In an extreme scenario, Turkey is not interested in Russia’s presence in Syria and in the Middle East, and even more importantly, it can find a way to strike a deal with the Assad regime if that will help stave off, or even eliminate the Kurdish “existential threat”.
Not in the least, while analysing the dysfunctions between Russia and Turkey one should not forget the fact that the two states have economic and commercial relations worth 30 billion USD in 2019, while Turkey accommodated no less than 6 million Russian tourists over the same year, and not to mention the joint nuclear and hydrocarbon energy projects.
Under these circumstances, the six-hour summit between Putin and Erdogan mainly focused on military issues. The only exception was the matter brought up by the Turkish President, who believed that a return to the Geneva process was also needed with a view to finding a general political solution to the Syrian conflict. The matter was not taken into consideration. So, the agreement between the two leaders, which will be considered an integral part of the Sochi agreements sums up the following:
- the cessation of all military operations at the contact lines between the Syrian and the Turkish armed forces; this truce will then be gradually and quickly implemented in the entire Idlib province;
- Turkey and Russia will establish a security corridor 6 km wide on each side of the strategic highway connecting Idlib to Aleppo, Latakia and Damascus. The security of the corridor will fall into the hands of both the Russian and the Turkish armed forces;
- starting with the 15th of March, joint Russian-Turkish patrols will be conducted along the strategic lines and towns in the region;
- in order to make the truce permanent, the Syrian armed forces will give up all attempts to enter Idlib (whether it is permanent or temporary they do not say); the farthest point they can reach is the city of Saraqib, in the eastern part of the district. These are the terms imposed by president Erdogan, who warned that any military action by the Syrian regime in the north-eastern part of the country will be answered accordingly by the Turkish military forces deployed in the region.
Many Arab analysts believed that the Erdogan-Putin summit, far from satisfying the needs of the Turkish leader, has proved once again that the Russian president continues to be the one pulling the strings of the outcome of the Syrian conflict. What they decided in Moscow on the 5th of March was but a comeback, with slight amendments to the solutions elaborated by Russia both in the “Astana Process” and during the Sochi rounds of negotiations. It is obvious that Vladimir Putin didn’t take any extra commitments as far as the guarantees to observe the truce and, much less as far as the involvement of the Russian war machine in operations alongside Bashar Al-Assad’s armed forces.
Erdogan’s attempt to “free” himself from under the Russian guardianship established in Sochi with a view to bringing back the Syrian dossier to the “Geneva process” – that is involving the UN and the Security Council – has also failed. And following the recent and considerable human losses amongst the Turkish military caused by Syrian air bombardments, Erdogan’s “Spring Shield” operation seems to have failed in assuming control over the Syrian north-east. Moreover, the fact that he asked for a meeting with Putin and requested for help from the European Union and NATO is, according to the Arab press, a clear “sign of weakness” from Erdogan.Under such circumstances, the competition for Syria is ongoing, the refugee and migrant waves will also keep on causing trouble, and Idlib, just like other Syrian “historical episodes” will be forgotten sooner or later. At what cost, it remains to be seen.