The situation in northwestern Syria may seriously worsen in the coming days. According to Bloomberg, citing sources in the Turkish government, Ankara is additionally deploying several thousand soldiers and hundreds of pieces of equipment here. At the same time, information appeared about the preparation of a major offensive on Idlib by the Syrian government army.
Disrupt the offensive
According to Bloom-berg, Turkish President Re-cep Erdogan sent troops to Syria to hold a trump card at a meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Sochi on September 29. It is expected that the talks will be mainly devoted to the solution of the “Idlib issue”. American journalists note that it is not easy for the parties to come to a compromise.
Moscow and Ankara have diametrically opposed interests in Idlib. Russia wants to help Assad clear the province of militants and bring it back under control. Ankara is probably quite happy with the current state of affairs. Erdogan is trying to maintain a military presence and influence in Syria, but fears a wave of refugees that will inevitably sweep Turkey’s border areas with the outbreak of hostilities. This will hit his rating domestically. According to Bloomberg, the main purpose of the transfer of Turkish troops to Idlib is to force Damascus to abandon a full-scale offensive.
Western media have been writing about this operation for several days. For more than a month now, large units have been deployed to the borders of the problematic governorate, regularly striking terrorist targets. Russian aviation has also seriously intensified in recent weeks, attacking targets in Idlib almost daily. So, in the middle of the week, bombs were dropped at once on seven points in the village of Benin. Perhaps it is for this reason that the Turks deployed MIM-23 anti-aircraft missile systems in the province in mid-September.
However, neither Moscow nor Damascus has yet announced preparations for the assault. At the same time, the Russian Ministry of Defense reports that militants of terrorist organizations who have settled in Idlib have begun to attack the positions of government troops and civilians more often. In particular, the deputy head of the Russian coordination center at the Khmeimim airbase, Rear Admiral Vadim Kulit, said that only on September 22, the extremists made 26 sorties.
In Damascus, they insist that the transfer of an additional Turkish contingent to Idlib will only convince the militants of their impunity.
“I believe that Turkey should immediately withdraw its troops,” Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad told RIA Novosti. “The international community, in turn, should support our efforts to liberate territories in the north of the country. The main reason for the escalation in Idlib is the Turkish occupation and the support that Ankara provides to terrorist groups.”
Idlib is now the most problematic province in Syria. Here the interests of several parties converged at once. The governorate is a “layer cake” of the Turkish military, extremist groups controlled by Ankara, “free” gangs of terrorists fighting against all, and units of the government army, which, with the support of the Russian Aeros-pace Forces, is trying to restore order in the country.
Syrian troops launched a major offensive in the winter and spring of 2020, liberating more than 35 settlements, 320 square kilometers of the country’s territory. By the end of January, the CAA occupied the city of Maarrat-en-Numan in the southeast of the province, taking control of the most important section of the Hama-Aleppo road. And on February 5, the army entered the key settlement of Seraqib at the intersection of the Aleppo-Hama and Aleppo-Latakia highways.
This caused a sharp discontent from Ankara, which demanded an ultimatum from Damascus to withdraw its troops to the positions they had occupied before the offensive. Syria did not react to this, and Turkey began to act. Its military, together with pro-Turkish militants, attacked the positions of the SAA along the entire front. In response, on February 27, Syrian aircraft struck a Turkish military convoy – 33 soldiers and officers were killed. After the incident, Ankara launched Operation Spring Shield, throwing additional forces into the battle. The Syrians retreated from several settlements. The Bayraktar TB-2 strike drones, which became famous at that time, were widely used in hostilities.
The situation was parti-ally stabilized on March 5, after the presidents of Ru-ssia and Turkey agreed in Moscow on an armistice in the conflict zone. We agre-ed to stop hostilities, withdraw troops and create a security corridor along the M-4 Latakia-Aleppo highway. They also organized joint patrols in this area.
In addition, Turkey has promised to fight extremists in the provinces. However, the militants continued, albeit less frequently, to attack targets, including in the security corridor. So, in June last year, they blew up a land mine on the way of a joint patrol on the M-4 highway. The Russian armored personnel carrier BTR-82A was damaged, miraculously there were no casualties.
Ankara’s main ally in the province is the so-called Syrian National Army. This is a rather motley formation of many groups, most of which Moscow and Damascus are considered terrorist. For example, the SNA has the Al-Hamza Division, whose militants have been fighting continuously since 2013.
The United States and Turkey have always helped this gang financially and materially, and its leader, MIT Turkish intelligence officer Seif Abu Bakr, was Ankara’s secret agent in IS for many years. Turkey made extensive use of the services of Al-Hamza and other extremists during Operation Euphrates Shield in August 2016. The militants of the “division” were among the first to enter Jerabulus and Karkamysh in the north of the country. The radicals then showed extreme cruelty towards the local Kurdish population. In 2018, Al-Hamza participated in the Turkish invasion of Afrin as part of Operation Olive Branch, and in 2019-2020 supported curators from Ankara during the battles in Idlib.
In addition, it was proved that the members of the group fought in Nagorno-Karabakh last autumn on the side of Azerbaijan. They were delivered to Baku by Turkish planes. This was confirmed, in particular, by French President Emmanuel Macron, who said that Ankara had transferred at least 300 radicals to Azerbaijan. Turkey’s cooperation with militants in Idlib has long been no secret. And if not for Ankara, the Syrians, most likely, would have liberated the province long ago.
It is unclear how the next escalation in northwest Syria will end, but it is clear that negotiations in Sochi will be difficult. Erdogan is inclined to confrontation and does not intend to concede. This, in particular, is evidenced by his recent unexpectedly harsh statement at the UN General Assembly that Ankara will never recognize Crimea as Russian. To put it mildly, not the most diplomatic statement before the meeting with Vladimir Putin.