The Idlib Developments Usher in a New Phase in Syria’s War

The Syrian civil war entered a new phase when Bashar al-Assad’s regime began an assault on the northwestern Idlib province that had remained outside of its control since the early years of the conflict. The regime’s military operations have displaced close to a million Syrian refugees who fled to the Turkish-Syrian border. As regime forces––aided by the Russian air force and Iran-supported militias––began their attack and scored some early victories, they inevitably exposed the civilian population and Turkish troops to danger, those deployed in observation posts around the perimeter of the province. In fact, dozens of Turkish soldiers were killed in regime operations, prompting a punishing response from the Turkish army and air force that inflicted heavy losses on the Syrian army and affiliated militias.

Unexpectedly––and perhaps strangely––Russia avoided clashing with Turkish forces and refrained from helping regime troops and militias despite its investment in propping up the Assad regime since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Moscow, however, voiced serious concerns about Turkey’s operations. It accused Ankara of violating the terms of the Astana and Sochi agreements governing the establishment of de-escalation zones in a number of areas of Syria and the deployment of observation outposts around Idlib province and elsewhere. Several Russian-Turkish meetings about the heightened tensions between Syria and Turkey have failed to end the conflict. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan visited Moscow on March 5 for discussions with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the two agreed on a ceasefire in Idlib; however, it may not hold given the multiple perspectives and interests of all parties involved.

Below, four resident and non-resident fellows at Arab Center Washington DC shed light on different aspects of the current situation in Idlib and the many actors that play a part in it.

Do you think that the Assad regime will continue its current campaign in Idlib?
Radwan Ziadeh, Senior Fellow, Arab Center Washington DC

The Syrian regime’s main purpose is to reconquer the area of northwestern Syria from the opposition. It is not concerned about the fact that more than three million Syrians there do not want to be governed by the Assad regime, which always resorts to reaffirming the principle of state sovereignty without guaranteeing the safety or human rights of the Syrian people. It also has not implemented United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 that called for free and fair elections in Syria, the setting up of a committee for transitional government, and the writing of a new constitution that guarantees the Syrians’ freedoms and human rights.

What is both disappointing and unfortunate is that Russia has adopted the Syrian regime’s views and agenda, and this prevents Ankara from seriously influencing Moscow. Turkey and Russia have thus begun a war of words, public statements, and mutual accusations that have stopped short of a full-fledged military confrontation—which they both know would not be in their interest.

Militarily, the Syrian regime has suffered a serious and consequential defeat during the last Turkish “Spring Shield” operation against the Syrian army. Turkey announced that it has neutralized some 3,000 Syrian troops, shot down three war planes and eight helicopters, and destroyed scores of tanks, missile launchers, artillery pieces, and air defense batteries. But Turkey, too, has suffered over the last two weeks when scores of its soldiers died as a result of Syrian attacks. For its part, the Syrian regime has not acknowledged its losses––indeed, it has not acknowledged losses since 2012 despite videos documenting the destruction of war planes and military assets––but it simply cannot continue to incur more damage. This is why it is most interested in putting an end to the current situation and looking for a political solution, essentially by asking Russia to negotiate with Turkey.

Can the opposition defeat regime forces without Turkish assistance?
Marwan Kabalan, Director of the Policy Analysis Unit, Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, Doha, Qatar

Since the Russian military intervention in Syria in September 2015, the Syrian opposition has declined steadily. Not only is victory over the regime a remote possibility, but the viability of the opposition itself has come into question, too. Russia exploited Turkey’s obsession with the Kurdish question and the latter’s deteriorating relations with its western allies, in an attempt to reach a modus vivendi with Ankara through the Astana process. Still, Moscow helped the Syrian regime to take over three of the four de-escalation zones agreed with Turkey in 2017. After every takeover, tens of thousands of civilians and fighters who did not want to stay under regime rule were allowed to leave for the last de-escalation zone in Idlib—the one last showdown.

This battle loomed large following the failure of round 12 of the Astana talks in late April 2019. Despite stiff resistance, over the three ensuing months the opposition lost several key towns north of Hama and south of Idlib, including the strategically located Khan Sheikhoun on the M5 highway. After a short lull following the redeployment of US forces in the eastern Euphrates region, Turkish forces entered Idlib and conducted operations against Syrian forces.

Last December, the Syrian regime and its allies orchestrated a major offensive to capture the strategic M4 and M5 highways that link the city of Latakia with Damascus and Aleppo and to completely defeat the opposition. Since the beginning of this offensive, opposition factions lost huge swaths of territory and seemed to be on the verge of collapse, lacking surface-to-air missiles to challenge the air supremacy of the Russians and the Syrian regime. Clearly, without massive Turkish support, the opposition does not stand a chance to survive. Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime have put their weight behind this final battle to thoroughly overrun the opposition and dictate their own terms to Turkey. Sensing the gravity of the situation, Turkey thought the unthinkable: to risk a confrontation with Russia. First, Turkey provided the opposition with additional lethal weapons to halt the regime’s advances. Several regime warplanes were then shot down. With the Syrian regime’s continuing offensive, Turkey then decided to deploy thousands of troops to Idlib to support the opposition and help it hold on to the territories it controls until a ceasefire would be reached.

What does Turkey want from its offensive in northwestern Syria?
Mustafa Gurbuz, Non-resident Fellow, Arab Center Washington DC

The stakes are very high for Turkey in Idlib. First and foremost, Ankara wants to block a massive refugee flow to the Turkish border that has dramatically escalated with the Assad regime’s attacks in the last few months. Domestically, Erdoğan repeatedly gave promises to address the refugee issue—which is often associated with economic troubles—and explained his plans to establish safe zones within Syria to facilitate the return of the refugees. Idlib’s three million civilian population thus presents a real challenge to Erdoğan’s government in domestic political calculations. Turkey declared Idlib as a red line in 2018 and warned the Assad regime not to attack the province. In this context, and seeing no other way out, the Turkish government perceives its military campaign for Idlib as necessary. The European Union’s silence on the refugee crisis has also reinforced the self-help policy in Ankara. To put pressure on Europe, Turkish authorities let thousands of refugees cross the border with Greece, deploying a thousand Turkish police officers to halt the pushback of migrants by Greek authorities.

Given that Turkey’s recent agreement with Russia does not address the refugee crisis, the hostilities on the ground may flare up once again. The ceasefire provided a face-saving exit for Erdoğan, who had demanded that the Syrian army retreat to the Sochi agreement lines of 2018 by the end of February. Retaliating for the killing of Turkish soldiers by Syrian forces, Erdoğan ordered a massive operation to destroy Syria’s military assets. The sustainability of the operation, however, was highly dubious as Turkey never wants to confront Russia. With the agreement, Turkey de facto accepted the regime’s control of the M4 highway—a critical juncture that will help the regime’s position in Idlib. Turkey’s puzzle with the extremists is also not resolved since it does not agree with what Russia considers to be terror groups. Indeed, it may not stand aside as Moscow continues to attack all opposition forces in the area.

How do Russia and Iran see developments in the area and what could be expected from them?Imad K. Harb, Director of Research, Arab Center Washington DC

Both Russia and Iran have been stalwart and steady supporters of the Syrian regime since the start of the civil war in 2011. They are not expected to change their views following the rise of tensions between Damascus and Ankara. In fact, if anything, the commitment to the survival and well-being of the regime and President Bashar al-Assad is likely to strengthen. However, and considering their differing interests in Syria and its future, Moscow and Tehran are likely to view the latest developments from divergent perspectives.

In addition to some hoped-for economic benefits that could accrue when the Syrian war ends, and if reconstruction of the country takes place (both are doubtful any time soon), Russia sees the Turkish challenge as a threat that should be addressed quickly. But it is folly to think that President Vladimir Putin is ready to sacrifice what he sees as a strategic friendship with Turkey by confronting Turkish troops militarily in Idlib. In fact, his inaction as the Turkish military was exacting its revenge on Syrian troops and their affiliated militias was telling. Putin saw that Turkish President Erdoǧan needed to answer domestically for the death of a high number of his soldiers. After all, the victims of Ankara’s retaliation were Syrian soldiers and Shia militias dispatched to Syria to help maintain Iran’s posture and interests in that country. In the end, Putin reasons, Erdoǧan has no interest in liberating Syria from Bashar al-Assad; his aim is to defend against additional Syrian refugees flocking into his country. To be sure, Erdoğan is also guarding against the Kurds’ establishment of an autonomous region in northern Syria.

Iran, on the other hand, finds that Turkey’s intervention in Syria constitutes a threat to its interests in Damascus and its overall strategic outlook. Iran also has no confidence that Russia will not bargain away its interests to preserve its special relationship with Turkey. Two important developments helped Tehran arrive at this conclusion. The first was that Russia refrained from protecting Shia militia fighters, like those affiliated with Hezbollah, from the Turkish drones conducting operations over Idlib. The second was that Russia neglected to involve Iranian officials in discussions with Turkish officials about ending the conflagration. This is perhaps why Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, called for tripartite talks between the Syrian regime, Turkey, and Iran without giving much regard to the pivotal role Russia plays in Syria or vis-à-vis Turkey. In fact, the crisis in northwestern Syria today may inaugurate serious frictions between Tehran and Moscow about their respective roles and future involvement in the Syrian civil war.