A child drinks from the tap of a cistern as others queue behind him in a flooded camp for displaced Syrians near the village of Killi in northwestern Idlib. Agence France-Presse
The Syrian army’s capture of the strategic town of Saraqeb is a turning point in the protracted campaign for Idlib province, the remaining bastion of Al Qaeda’s Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, its radical allies, and Turkish surrogate forces. The seizure of Saraqeb is the culmination of the offensive mounted by the Syrian army in December with the full support of Russian airpower and pro-Iranian ground forces. For the Syrian army, the capture of Saraqeb was an important moral victory as this town and Maarat Al Nouman had revolted against the government in 2012.
Saraqeb is strategically significant for several reasons. Saraqeb straddles the junction on the main north-south highway connecting Damascus-Hama-Aleppo and the east-west route between Aleppo and the port city of Latakia. The Syrian army has advanced through Maarat Al Numan to Saraqeb, two-thirds along this highway and is sniping at the edges of the provincial capital Idlib city, the radicals’ stronghold. Saraqeb is only 10 kilometres from the Idlib-Aleppo provincial border.
The Syrian army is also conducting operations in northern Aleppo. If the army completes its drive northwards and eastwards it will effectively gain control of more than half of Idlib province. By squeezing and confining the radicals, the army will be in a strong position to force their surrender or exous.
The Syrian government cannot afford to allow Al Qaeda, other radical groups, and the Turkish-client “National Army,” or “Free Syrian Army,” to remain permanently in Idlib. This would prevent the government from asserting Syrian state sovereignty in the province and leave Idlib a base for subversion and attacks.
The 2018 deal reached by Russia, Turkey and Iran for a ceasefire and de-confliction in Idlib was meant to halt Idlib-based attacks and raids against Hama province and northern Aleppo province and end the radical threat to Aleppo city.
There were two major things wrong with this deal.
First, the UN-declared “terrorist” groups Al Qaeda and Daesh were not covered by the ceasefire and de-confliction effort. Consequently, they continued to conduct strikes on the army and civilian sites, leaving the army no option but to fight back.
Second, Turkey never implemented its commitments. Ankara was obliged to impose a 15-20 kilometre buffer zone around Idlib from which heavy weapons and radicals were to withdraw, open the main north-south and east-west highways, separate radicals from “rebels” and disarm the radicals.
Although empowered to establish modest observation posts to monitor the ceasefire, Turkey built a dozen large, fortified military camps each manned by more than 300 soldiers who were provided with heavy artillery and tanks. Turkey has constantly reinforced these bases with troops and equipment, transforming a temporary observation operation into a fully-fledged hostile occupation.
While Syrian troops have surrounded but not attacked several of these bases, the army has struck convoys at least twice, eliciting harsh responses from Turkey. Its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who still seeks the ouster of Syria’s government, has demanded the Syrian army’s withdrawal from Idlib by the end of the month and threatened measures if it fails to capitulate to his ultimatum.
The Syrian army and its allies are unlikely to oblige. To regain Idlib, it has lost too many soldiers in battles against Idlib-based Tahrir and Sham, its allies, and Daesh.
The fact that the Syrian army has had Russian air cover and the support of pro-Iranian fighters in the Idlib offensive signifies that both Moscow and Tehran are fed up with Erdogan who has — along with Donald Trump — become a “spoiler” in efforts to end the war in Syria and reunite the country.
Russia is determined to regain the Latakia highway and clear radicals from the hills overlooking that province. They frequently launch drones and rockets at Russia’s Hmeimin airbase south of Latakia city. Having provided the Syrian government with the support needed to regain around 70 per cent of Syria, Russia is not ready to concede Idlib to anti-government Turkey which has proved itself to be an unreliable partner in the failed process of pacifying Idlib.
Russia is unwilling to accept the presence in Idlib of up to 30,000 radical fighters belonging to Al Qaeda, Daesh and smaller factions. Moscow fears hundreds from the North Caucasus region could infiltrate Turkey and return home to mount attacks and radicalise others.
Shia Iran has deployed essential ground forces to reinforce the undermanned and overstretched Syrian army which Tehran sees as a key counterweight to Sunni radicals waging war in both Syria and Iraq. Lebanon’s Hizbollah joined the battle against these forces in June 2013 to prevent them from crossing into Lebanon and dragging that country into the Syrian conflict.
Having supported armed and political opponents of the Syrian government and funnelled radical elements into Syria since unrest erupted in 2011, Turkey faces the destructive consequences of Erdogan’s policies and actions. Like Russia, Turkey faces jihadi infiltration and terrorist attacks. Turkey also fears an influx of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the fighting in Idlib.
Erdogan insists there are currently a million Syrians camped on the Syrian-Turkish border and demanding entry. Turkey has already given refuge to 3.6 million Syrians who have become an unacceptable burden and increasingly unpopular with Turks.
Turkey is an expansionist power. It did not become expansionist under Erdogan but under secular, liberal Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit who invaded, occupied northern Cyprus in the summer of 1974, and transferred mainland settlers to the area. Unlike Ecevit who became known as the “Conqueror of Cyprus,” Erdogan has an Ottoman agenda. He seeks to take back territories that were once part of the Ottoman Empire. His aim in Syria has been to replace the secular, Baathist government with a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated regime. However, this was never an attainable objective because the Brotherhood has little support in Syria itself and the tools he has used to gain his goal have been craven warlords with their own agendas.
A victory for them would fracture Syria into fighting fiefdoms where Al Qaeda or Daesh or both could gain the upper-hand just as Tahrir Al Sham has done in Idlib. From the outset, Erdogan’s plan has been a recipe for conflict, destruction and death in Syria.