By Aram Mirzaei for the Saker blog
The two months long Syrian Army offensive in the Idlib and Aleppo provinces culminated in Aleppo’s complete liberation from the jihadist terrorists of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) and their friends. In a matter of weeks, the Syrian Army, backed by the Russian Air Force managed to liberate hundreds of towns and cities across the two provinces, including the important cities or Saraqib and Maarat Al-Numan, while also fully securing the imperative M5 highway stretching from Damascus to Aleppo. These are areas that were considered untouchable only a year ago, but now they have all fallen like bricks, proving that the jihadist resolve is dwindling.
Naturally, tensions with Ankara, a key backer of the jihadist forces, have risen. The Russian-Turkish understanding has deteriorated over the past weeks as both sides accuse eachother of breaking their agreement. The Sochi agreement of 2018 stipulated that a demilitarized zone was to be created in Idlib and Ankara was tasked with separating the “moderate” rebels from HTS militants. After almost 18 months of stalling by the Turkish side and repeated attacks and violations of the agreement by the Jihadist forces, Moscow’s and Damascus’ patience finally ran out.
I have for long been a critic of these ceasefire deals in Idlib as I consider it a waste of time to negotiate with Jihadists since these are people that consider peace with the kuffars (Russians) and murtadeens (Shias, Alawites) to be a sin. Besides, what would be the purpose of a long term ceasefire with them? The Syrian jihadists will never participate in a political settlement, while the foreign jihadists have no right to be in Syria in the first place.
The jihadists have for long declared that they will not rest until the Syrian government is overthrown anyways. When two sides have such fundamental differences that can never be reconciled, there is no point in even trying. The reality is that the Syrian Army and the jihadists are locked in a battle of annihilation, no side can live comfortably as long as the other side still exists. Yes, the ceasefire deals were beneficial for a while in 2017 when the Syrian Army had the opportunity to shift focus from Idlib to central and eastern Syria in their campaign against the so called “Islamic State”. With Daesh defeated, the jihadists in Idlib were not just weakened but also isolated since the Syrian Army no longer had to fight on two fronts in the Aleppo and Hama provinces. While the Russian entry into the war in 2015, spelled disaster for the jihadists, the fall of Daesh as a territorial entity made it even more clear that the jihadist defeat was inevitable.
Still Ankara has thrown all its weight behind the jihadists, even going as far as threatening to launch an offensive to push back the Syrian Army gains. So far, Ankara has sent massive convoys to Idlib and set up new “observation posts” across the region and helped the jihadists to launch counter offensives on Saraqib- there are pictures and videos showing HTS militants using Turkish military vehicles, while Moscow also caught Turkish forces providing artillery cover to the jihadists. Moscow has responded by reassuring their commitment to stand by the Syrian Army and joined the Syrian Air Force in bombing the jihadists, striking Turkish forces embedded with them as well. Tensions rose to alarming levels when several Turkish soldiers were killed in Moscow’s bombings, naturally Ankara blamed Damascus rather than admitting that Moscow punished Ankara for crossing the line. Yet Erdogan continues to threaten Syria by demanding the Syrian Army withdraws from all liberated areas by the end of February.
It remains to be seen whether Ankara will make good on its promise of launching an offensive on Idlib, but history teaches us that making strategic moves out of desperation is never a good idea. Ankara is desperate to have the jihadists remaining in Idlib, because Erdogan knows what the other option means – 30 000 terrorists with nowhere else to go, flocking into Turkey and wreaking havoc inside the country. It’s a dangerous game that Ankara is playing here. Fighting the Kurdish led militias who have no airpower and capabilities to bring down Turkish warplanes is one thing, but fighting a Syrian Arab Army, with 9 years of battle experience, and two major players such as Iran and Russia backing them militarily and logistically, is a whole other thing.
One would think that it would be in Turkey’s best interest to see these terrorists eliminated. Logically, nobody would want terrorists as their neighbours, which makes me question whether or not Ankara is actually calling the shots here. There is another player in this war that has a history of using terrorism to achieve their goals – enter Washington. My gut feeling tells me that Washington is behind these tensions as it is Washington that benefits from a collapse in Russian-Turkish collaboration. I believe that Washington is fuming over the rapid advance of the Syrian Army, and seeing how Washington has lost influence over an ever more rebellious Ankara over the past few years, Washington sees a great opportunity to get Ankara back into the fold.
It is no coincidence that Secretary Pompeo immediately after the announcement of two slain Turkish soldiers took to Twitter express “solidarity with the killed Turkish soldiers” and declare Washington’s commitment to “stand by our NATO ally Turkey”. A few days ago, reports alleged that Turkey had asked Washington for support through the deployment of Patriot missile systems to counter Russian warplanes – this was supposedly in response to Moscow’s decision to impose a no-fly zone in north-western Syria. As mentioned, Washington is the player that benefits the most from a Turkish-Russian deterioration of relations, as Washington thrives in the chaos that would follow if Moscow and Ankara cannot find a solution and are forced to confront one another.
Erdogan is recognized as a mentally unstable player by many observers while others consider him a mastermind who has been playing both sides in this war and who is now trying to bluff his way into stopping the Syrian Army advance. Whether he is crazy or just bluffing I’ll leave for every person to decide for himself, but if he is crazy and wants to confront Damascus and Moscow on this matter, then we are about to enter yet another bloody chapter of this almost 9 years long great tragedy. By the end of this month, we will know if Erdogan is bluffing for not.
Update: Since writing this article, the situation has further escalated as last night at least 33 Turkish troops were killed by Syrian Army shelling. The Turkish military responded by reportedly striking Syrian Army positions all over the Idlib countryside, causing catastrophic damage to the Syrian military’s capabilities in northwestern Syria.