Russian-Syrian forces pound Idlib, Turkey shifts attention to Kurdish positions
BEIRUT - Days after Syrian peace talks wrapped up in Kazakhstan, a major offensive was launched by Syrian and Russian forces, striking at the north-western Syrian province of Idlib and the nearby countryside of Hama, in pursuit of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the al-Qaeda affiliate in the Syrian battlefield.
The timing of the operation was surprising, coming after a statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who, speaking April 27 in China, said no full-fledge invasion of Idlib would happen because of the massive refugee crisis that it would trigger into Turkey and beyond.
“Right now, we and our Syrian friends consider that to be inadvisable,” Putin said. Repeated attempts at forcefully retaking the city had been aborted by France and Germany, who feared a renewed flow of refugees into Europe.
The operation in Idlib remains confined to aggressive aerial bombardment, aimed more at breaking moral of the opposition than ejecting it from the Syrian city. That will be the task of the Turkish Army, through an agreement between Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached last September.
Erdogan promised to finish the job by mid-October but failed to meet the deadline, shifting his attention to the Kurdish enclave in north-eastern Syria, which he has been promising to raid since December.
That territory was far more dangerous — and urgent — for Erdogan than Idlib, a city he knew could not remain indefinitely under control of the armed groups, given its presence deep in Russia’s sphere of influence.
Not only did Erdogan back out on his Idlib promise but he temporarily withdrew his best fighters — Ahrar al-Sham and the Zinki Brigade — from the province, saving them for a major attack against Kurdish separatists in Kobane, Ras al-Ayn and Tell Rifaat, north of Aleppo.
The Turkish operation was to have happened in April immediately after the supposed withdrawal of US troops, who have been protecting and arming Syria’s Kurds for the past five years.
By early this year, however, it became clear such a multilayered operation would not occur, certainly not after US President Donald Trump announced that he would be keeping 400 troops in Syria, stationed mostly amid the Kurdish communities. Instead Erdogan would have to go for something far small, more strategic and “surgical.”
The Turkish president reverted to his earlier agreement with the Russians, seeking Putin’s support for a limited operation in the Kurdish territories in exchange for cleansing Idlib on Russia’s behalf, both from the Islamic State (ISIS) and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
In theory, once the city was “clean,” Syrian government forces would be ushered back into Idlib, under the watchful eye of the Russian Air Force, with implicit approval of the Turks. A Russian-led reconciliation process would follow, like those in East Ghouta and Daraa. Until that happens, the Russians will bomb HTS on Erdogan’s behalf, which is what they have been doing since late April.
The two leaders had worked together in the past on similar agreement. In 2016, Erdogan looked the other way as the Russian Air Force pounded his Syrian proxies in Aleppo. In exchange for letting them retake the city in full, the Russians did nothing to prevent the carving of a Turkish-administered “safe zone” along the borderline, free from any Kurdish presence.
Three years ago, the Turks took control of Jarabulus, Azaz and al-Bab and, in mid-2018, marched on Afrin, west of the Euphrates, also within Russia’s sphere of influence. In exchange for letting him take Afrin, Erdogan abandoned his proxies in the Damascus countryside, not lifting a finger to protect them in East Ghouta.
A similar scenario is in the making, amid Turkish silence over the attacks on the Idlib-Hama axis. Turkish troops at nearby positions have looked the other way as Russian bombs were dropped on Idlib.
Simultaneously, however, Turkish troops advanced on Tell Rifaat in the Aleppo countryside, where, Erdogan claims, thousands of Kurdish fighters fled from Afrin last year. It has been on Erdogan’s hit list since December, along with Kobane and Ras al-Ayn. The last two were problematic, because of a heavy concentration of US troops but Tell Rifaat was accessible, situated within the Russian zone.
The devil, however, lies in the details. For starters, how will the Kurds of Tell Rifaat respond to the Turkish operation? After their defeat in Afrin, they regrouped and rearmed, making Tell Rifaat far more difficult to overrun than Afrin.
Second, will the Americans stand by and watch their Kurdish allies being exterminated in Tell Rifaat, as they were defeated in Afrin?
Third, what will be the fate of Turkey’s remaining forces in Idlib, known as the National Liberation Front, once through with their operation against HTS? A collective pardon is impossible, the Syrians insist, saying that only those who join the Russian-led reconciliation process will be allowed to stay in Idlib, after surrendering their arms. What about those, especially from HTS, who refuse?
In the past, armed groups who said no to the Russians were shipped off to Idlib but now, with Idlib poised to return to government control, where will the militants go? There are very few pockets left in Syria that are under control of the armed opposition and those that are will refuse to welcome a contingent from HTS and the Islamic State.
Meaning either the Russians will have to come up with another Idlib or defeat them fully in Idlib itself, something that will probably take a very long time and is easier said than done.