Fall of Maaret al-Numan: The final nail in Turkey’s Syria adventure

Even as the tide turns unerringly in Damascus’ favour, Erdogan clings on, apparently blind to realities on the ground.
Sunday 09/02/2020
A Syrian Army soldier in Maaret al-Numan, Syria, January 30. (Reuters)
Turning tide. A Syrian Army soldier in Maaret al-Numan, Syria, January 30. (Reuters)

The Syrian Army’s taking of Maaret al-Numan, along with other advances towards the Turkish border, has writ large a simple truth many observers have known for months: the Turkish government’s disastrous Syria adventure is soon to come to an end.

At the onset of the Syrian conflict in 2011, Turkey’s stance was of major import. When Ankara publicly sided with the anti-government protesters by calling for Syrian President Bashar Assad’s ouster in November 2011, it caused ripples across the region. From 2012-14, Turkey was the most important foreign actor in the Syrian conflict, actively aiding or ignoring opposition forces running weapons from its territory into northern Syria.

Its invasion of Idlib province in October 2017 essentially turned the province into a de facto independent region under Ankara’s tutelage, drawing further tremors around the Middle East. Occupying a neighbouring country’s territory at such a combustible time in the Middle East was viewed as a show of enormous strength, confidence and ambition but bore little risk.

Ankara established 11 official (and several unofficial) military observation posts around Idlib that house small contingents of Turkish soldiers. Its goal was to protect Syrian civilians who had fled the regime in other parts of the country while herding the disparate military opposition factions under its command.

Recent weeks have seen Turkey’s Syria adventure fall apart. Since December, three observation posts have fallen to Syrian troops or been evacuated. Turkish troops find themselves surrounded by pro-Assad forces, unable to hold back their onslaught. Seven Turkish soldiers and a civilian were killed in shelling by Syrian government forces recently. All the while, the Justice and Development Party government in Ankara remains stubbornly unwilling to admit defeat and remove its troops.

As such, with Assad’s forces and proxies on the march this month, the fall of Idlib province is only a matter of time.

Ankara’s military operations in the Kurdish-majority areas of north-eastern Syria, of course, do mean it has a keen interest in Syrian affairs and it one day very well may reach its goals within the Kurdish sphere but Turkey’s original stated aim of marshalling the overthrow of the Assad regime has failed.

To be sure, it’s not all Turkey’s fault. It has helped cushion the humanitarian fallout of the war as much as, perhaps more than, any other country, giving refuge to millions of Syrians over the course of the conflict. Ankara has also been stung by Moscow’s recent hypocrisy — telling Turkey’s leaders it remains committed to protecting civilians in Idlib while simultaneously using its warplanes to drop bombs on them. The agreement reached in 2018 was to create and maintain a de-escalation zone along the borders of Idlib; Moscow, for all intents and purposes, has ripped that up.

“There have been agreements made with Russia… right now, unfortunately, Russia is not honouring these agreements,” Erdogan was quoted as telling a Turkish newspaper. “We have waited until now but, from this point, we are going to take our own actions. This is not a threat but our expectation is that Russia will give the (Syrian) regime the necessary warning… Russia tells us they fight against terrorism. Who are terrorists? The people fighting to defend their own lands?”

All of which makes Turkey’s recent strategic and military steps across the board even more baffling, disjointed and short-sighted. Sending Syrian fighters into conflict zones in Libya when they are badly needed to fight off the Assad assault in Idlib is one such head-scratcher.

Even as the tide turns unerringly in Damascus’ favour, Erdogan clings on, apparently blind to realities on the ground. In January, the Turkish president sent armoured vehicles and troops into Idlib to establish an observation post south of Saraqib, 28km north of Maaret al-Numan. Damascus responded by bombing two schools and a market area with warplanes.

For Assad, control of Saraqib has been a long-term goal because it’s a first step towards control of a highway linking Latakia on the Mediterranean coast with Aleppo in the north-east — a corridor of major strategic and logistical importance.

Maaret al-Numan was one of the first towns in Syria to experience the full range of the Syrian regime’s merciless brutality when the latter deployed tanks and helicopter gunships to kill 28 anti-government protesters in June 2011. Now, having been strafed by jets, shelled and killed, with hundreds of thousands again fleeing violence, the one entity its residents thought they could depend on — their Turkish neighbours to the north — have failed them, too.