The battle of Idlib is far from over

By Elijah J. Magnier: @ejmalrai

The opening of the Saraqeb-Latakia road, known as the M4, is scheduled for this Sunday the 15th of March as established during the memorandum protocol signed in Moscow between the two presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan following the battle of Saraqeb. The Turkish-Russian patrols are supposed to secure the M4 following a three-day meeting in Ankara between Russian and Turkish military to coordinate the joint patrols and to prevent any attacks from Jihadists. Many jihadists groups reject the Russian-Turkish deal and will likely shell the road or try to kidnap drivers. Everything depends on how decisive the Turkish army and its allies in the Idlib area will be in adhering to the ceasefire, and how convincing Russia’s response will be if the ceasefire is violated. 

The Aleppo-Damascus road, known as the M5, was liberated by military force (Russia, the Syrian army and its allies) and is now open for civilians. However, the Syrian army and its allies still use the safer Aleppo-Ithriya-Khanaser road. The battle of Saraqeb forced the Moscow deal and revived the 2018 Astana agreement that was ignored by Turkey for a year and a half. 

Jihadists groups including Ansar al-Tawheed wal-Jihad, Ansar al-Islam, Ansar al-Deen, Kavkaz brigade and Hurras al-Deen (al-Qaeda in Bilad al-Sham) have decided to oppose the Russian-Turkish agreement and attack the joint patrol along the M4. These groups, along with Abu Imara, Tansiqiyat a-Jihad and Muhajereen brigade are sworn to oppose Turkey and Russia in rural Idlib. Northwestern Syria has been divided between two camps: one camp under Turkey’s control, acknowledging the Moscow-Astana agreement, and another rejecting it. 

This week, a Russian military delegation visited Ankara to discuss with Turkish army leadership procedures to control the M4. Armed drones and Russian Air Force will be ready to intervene, along with Special Forces, to hit any attempt to oppose joint Russian-Turkish control of the M4 and to deal with any presence of jihadists along the road. 

Al-Qaeda in Syria (Hurras al-Deen) issued audio of its Emir Hammam al-Suri (Samir Hijazi), one of the notorious Emirs of al-Qaeda who fought in Chechnya, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, asking Syrian and other jihadists to “persist” in their position, thereby rejecting withdrawal from the M4. 

Abu Mohamad al-Joulani – the ex-ISIS Emir who led al-Qaeda in Syria and quit it later to lead his jihadist group “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham” (former al-Nusra) – “thanked the Turkish government for its support in the last battle”. Joulani was ambiguous about his intentions in the coming days, when Russian-Turkish patrols are supposed to take control of the M4, even if Joulani concluded that “only the language of weapons will prevail”, indicating his will to continue fighting. 

The Moscow deal (and before it Astana) free the M4 from the control of jihadists who are mainly foreign fighters. They control the cities of al-Nerab, Ariha, Jisr al-Shughur and Bdama. These foreign fighters are said to be entrenched in these cities. They reject any withdrawal. It will be the Turkish task to convince these jihadists by force or dialogue before Sunday the 15th. Jihadists managed to survive and restore their food and ammunition via Turkey only. It will be a hard choice for them: to wage war on Turkey and lose everything, or to hope that Ankara will manoeuvre further and prolong their presence for another year. 

On the other hand, the Russian military delegation visiting Turkey in the past days said the Turkish party had realised the seriousness of Russia’s intention to implement the Moscow agreement by all means. According to the Russian delegation, the Turks realised that the M5 had been opened by force and that the M4 will follow if the Jihadists fail to withdraw. It is all in Ankara’s benefit to dislodge the jihadists from the M4 and entrench them in the city of Idlib. President Erdogan has no intention to deliver Idlib back to the Syrian government. 

Sources close to President Bashar al-Assad said that the problem is not with Turkey but with President Erdogan himself. “As long as Erdogan is in power, the problems between the two countries will persist. The Turkish president wants to divide Syria and keep control of the north, Idlib in particular, because it represents the first line of defence in front of Afrin. If Idlib is liberated, the Syrian army will knock the door of the north.” 

Neither Russia nor Iran are willing to start a war with Turkey or to repeat the scenario of Saraqeb again. During the last battle for the control of the M5 and Saraqeb, the presence of the Turkish army along with Jihadists in the battlefield left 59 Turkish soldiers and officers killed, as Erdogan announced. The Turkish military was about to widen the conflict by indiscriminately bombing the Syrian army and its allies. The Turkish command was angered following the destruction of an armoured personnel carrier by a laser-guided missile (9M133 Kornet) fired by Syrian allies killing all Turkish servicemen in it. Turkey was planning to break the defence line on the city of Talhiyah but failed, notwithstanding the significant number of jihadists involved in the attack. Twenty-four hours before, Hezbollah Secretary General Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah ordered the dispatched of a large number of Ridwan Special Forces to reinforce the frontline notwithstanding the contest of his field commanders. Sayyed Nasrallah’s move saved the front from falling, a front that suffered a huge attack by Jihadists and Turkey. 

Iran and its allies sent a strong message to Turkey warning they have no plans to be engaged in a war against Ankara troops but that they would if Turkey were to continue bombing their positions. Turkey concluded that Syria and its allies are determined to hold on to the entire liberated area and that a war between Turkey and Iran and its partners is not beneficial to any side involved. 

Syria considers that Erdogan will not give up on the jihadists who obey his instructions. They represent a buffer and a significant asset he can use to fight in different parts of the world, i.e. Egypt, Libya, Syria, Iraq or anywhere he wants to be present. Jihadists help Erdogan to secure a place in the constitutional negotiation to limit the authority of the Syrian president and other reforms. 

The presence of US forces in north-east Syria is a problem for Russia and the Syrian government since their goal is to “make it very difficult” to defeat jihadists and to “ban any assistance [of reconstruction] to put the country back together again”. Turkey, unlike the Syrian army, is capable of negotiating the US presence in the US-occupied north-east Syria. This is why Erdogan proposed to Putin joint management of oil fields in eastern Syria under  US control. Putin left the door open without agreeing to Erdogan’s proposal. The Turkish presence in Syria has become more problematic than the US occupation as long as this Turkish president is in power. 

Indeed, even if Erdogan asserted in Moscow his willingness to preserve the unity of Syria, he can always align himself behind more than one excuse to stay in Syria.  The presence of millions of Syrian refugees internally displaced or the request of some elements – loyal to Turkey – of the Syrian population for Ankara to intervene as he has stated in previous occasions are enough reasons for him to keep his forces in Syria. This is the reason why Russia has enforced the opening of the M5 and M4 to crawl slowly towards Idlib city and limit the expansion of jihadists to a vast and challenging territory. 

In the coming months, Russia and the Syrian government will rely on the rejection of jihadists in the Russian-Turkish agreement. If jihadists refuse to withdraw and continue violating the ceasefire (thirty violations registered in four days), there will be enough reasons for military intervention when all options are exhausted. This time Turkey will be able to do very little to protect the jihadists. Whatever direction this ceasefire will take, the battle of Idlib is far from over. It has only been postponed. 

Proofread by:  C.G.B

 This article is translated free to many languages by volunteers so readers can enjoy the content. It shall not be masked by Paywall. I’d like to thank my followers and readers for their confidence and support. If you liked it, please don’t feel embarrassed to contribute and help fund it, for as little as 1 Euro. Your contribution, however small, will help ensure its continuity. Thank you.

Copyright ©   2020 

6 thoughts on “The battle of Idlib is far from over

  1. Thanks for another comprehensive analysis of the complex Syrian reality.

    Idlib is now the main axis in the Syrian contradiction, and even when Mr. Magnier’s article touches upon most aspects of the current conundrum, Idlib context is so fluid we are left with many questions about the near, mid, and long term future of the Syrian border with Turkey, and of how the Idlib conflict will resolve.

    President Assad inner circle might have some first hand information about Erdogan to single him out as the main actor behind the aggressive Turkish policies toward Syria, and to separate him from the policies of the Turkey state. IMHO, Turkey’s current foreign policy has been decades in the making, preceded Erdogan’s arrival to the halls of power as they are a product of Turkey’s tank-thinkers and archaic revival hot-headed academics, whose policy papers are piggybacking on Erdogan’s ego and ambitions to become state sanctioned policies.

    I disagree with their opinion a change of government in Turkey will signify a substantial modification in Turkey’s foreign policy direction.

    Besides that, all what is left for me are questions, and Mr. Magnier might have some inklings up to what the answers are.

    From day one after the “Moscow Addendum” between Erdogan and Putin on March 5, Erdogan, his defense minister Hulusi Akar, and his foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu have been threatening to restart “Operation Spring Shield” if Syria violates the cease fire. On March 11, Erdogan threatened Syria to respond with “more force” to any “breach of the cease-fire,” announcing that Turkey is “closely monitoring the mobilization of the Syrian regime and its militia supporters near the ceasefire line, and we will deal with them with severe blows if they violate their promises.”

    “Erdogan vows to deliver “severe blows” to Syrian military in Idlib.”

    On his part, Turkey defense minister Hulusi Akar stated on March 12 “Our forces have been ordered to act accordingly if the cease-fire is violated and attacks continue. Everyone is ready at any moment […] We will restart [the Spring Shield operation] where we left off and hurt [Syrian forces]”, Akar said. In addition, Akar gave notice “that the nation’s troops will stay in the Syrian Idlib province, and rejected any withdrawal. He noted that the armed forces will hold their positions inside Syrian territory just across the Turkish-Syrian border. He added that Turkish forces will monitor the ceasefire regime in the province and vowed to intervene if the Syrian Army violates it, without clarifying whether Ankara would respond to the violations on the local militants’ side.”

    “Turkey will keep military presence in Syria: DM”

    On March 10, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said “If the Assad regime tries to proceed heedless of cease-fire in Idlib, Turkish forces will do as they have done before,” without further elaboration. Another important aspect of the Turkish message stated by Çavuşoğlu was that “Now we work on to make this cease-fire permanent.”

    “Turkey to patrol north, Russians south of M4 highway in Idlib: Minister”

    A similar statement about the permanent nature of the cease-fire was also made by defense minister Akar, “The first implementation of [the ceasefire] will be seen on the M4 highway on the fifteenth of the month with a joint patrol. Join coordination centers will then be established and activities will be managed together with these centers. Our requests and demands on this issue have been made very clear many times by our president. Our desire there, our main goal, is to make this ceasefire permanent as soon as possible.”

    “Turkey seeks to make Idlib ceasefire permanent: video”

    We can draw two conclusions from the statements of Turkey main officials, 1) they are ready to counter any actions by Syria they may consider violations of the cease-fire; 2) they want to make the cease-fire permanent. A sort of contradiction in terms.

    First question, what is a “cease-fire violation” for Turkey? A Syrian response to provocations from the taqfiri scum they protect? A Syrian enforcement of the “Moscow Addendum”? Is there a clear definition of what a cease-fire constitutes in the new context? Was that spelled out at the March 10 meeting between Turkey and Russia in Ankara, post “Moscow Addendum”? Were there clear guidelines established as to what will be considered a cease-fire violation that will prompt any of the parties into action? Or are the Turks free to interpret the meaning of a cease-fire violation at whim?

    Another question that comes forth, what do Turkey officials mean by “making the cease-fire permanent”? Do they mean for the taqfiri scum to stay where they are? Are they aiming at creating a status quo out of the latest cease-fire? Are they opportunistically exploiting the cease-fire to set new frontlines in Syria? We don’t know the answer to all those questions that stumble in our thoughts, as we read the well informed article Mr. Magnier gifted us with. However, it looks like Turkey is getting ready for war and will find any pretext to retaliate and attack Syrian forces, while the reference to making the cease-fire “permanent” is another euphemism for occupation and theft of Syrian land.

    On another note, relevant to the potential cease-fire violations, it was announced the SAA entered a number of towns and villages post “Moscow Addendum,” in the Jabal Al Zawiya region “that were front-line areas and considered ‘no man’s land’ prior to taking control of them on Thursday. The Syrian Arab Army is currently securing these areas near the key town of Kafr Nabl in the southern countryside of the Idlib Governorate.”

    “Syrian Army takes control of several areas in Idlib”

    Along the same lines, Buthaina Sha’aban, political and media advisor to President Assad, “said that the recent agreement between the Russian and Turkish presidents in Moscow paves way for the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) to retake several areas in the Idlib Governorate. According to the presidential adviser, the Moscow agreement allows for the Syrian Arab Army to take hold of the strategic cities of Ariha and Jisr Al-Shughour, which are currently under the control of both the jihadist rebels and Turkish-backed militants.”

    “Russian-Turkish agreement allows Syrian Army to retake Ariha, Jisr Al-Shughour: adviser”

    Ariha and Jisr Al-Shughour are two of the towns Mr. Magnier mentioned in his article as occupied by taqfiri scum, mostly foreigners, the others are al-Nerab and Bdama. If, as the presidential advisor suggests, the “Moscow Addendum” allows the SAA to take back these towns, the path is set for a confrontation in the near future.

    Finally, Turkey just performed another circus show pretending to clear the M4 highway, which was supposed to be patrolled today by a join Turkey-Russia convoy, between the towns of Turunbah (Trumba or Tronba), and Ain al Hawr (Ain al-Havr). Allegedly, the “civilian population,” read taqfiri scum in civilian clothes, blocked the road and pelted with rocks an advance patrol sent by Turkey to clear any obstacles. The Turkish patrol turned around to avoid confrontations with the “civilian population.”

    “Turkish military pelted with stones in Idlib: video”

    That’s the kind of “permanent cease-fire” the slimy Turks are looking for, and if and when the Syrian Army enforces the “Moscow Addendum,” it would be considered by the Turks a “cease-fire violation,” a pretext for another round of fighting against the SAA. There cannot be more evidence the Turks are there to defend and prop up the taqfiri scum against Syria, and by association, Russia, and to be an interventionist tool for the USA, whose goal is to deny Syria and its allies a complete victory in their long struggle against the West and their puppets.

    Lone Wolf

  2. Thank you for the detailed analysis on the difficult situation. Your reports are top notch, unlike the spin, propaganda and smoke and mirrors encountered elsewhere. Keep up the good work!!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.