Syria and Turkey Battle for Idlib Province
Nine years have passed since the Syrian conflict began, since the optimism of the 2011 Arab Spring turned into tragedy. For Syria, it all began on March 15 of that year, when protesters took to the streets in Daraa, in the southwest of the country. Soon protests – mostly peaceful – spread throughout the country, demanding an end to the 40-year rule of the Assad family. The state police, as always, reacted violently against unarmed people, and within a few weeks the death toll was in the hundreds. In response, many opponents of the regime organized themselves and took up arms. After nine years of civil war in Syria, 384,000 have died in the conflict.
In addition, according to the UN, the number of displaced persons since the beginning of the conflict is around seven million, and the number of refugees abroad – especially in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and across Europe – is estimated at over five million. To the number of displaced persons should be added the number of people who have been living in camps for several months now in the small province of Idlib, near the Turkish-Syrian border (closed in 2018 due to the intense bombing by the regime and its allies), with the hope of being able to cross the border or be “relocated” to the areas they had abandoned.
In the winter months of 2019, this province – which has become a huge refugee camp – suffered heavy air strikes by the Russian Air Force and Syrian government forces, which made life impossible for its inhabitants and forced many of them to flee. Jean Larquet, spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, warned on February 5 that “there is no safe place left in Idlib because bombs are falling everywhere.”
This is the shame of the Syrian war. Several powers – Syria, Russia, Iran and Turkey – are fighting over a small territory where about three and a half million people live, causing an unprecedented humanitarian crisis.
In the meantime, the war that seemed almost over after the Damascus government had won some battles thanks to the intervention of Russia, has instead in these months re-exploded, and this time the contenders – especially Russia and Turkey – seem intent on winning the war: neither, in fact, wants to lose face over Idlib. Even if so far the conflict has been “frozen” by a ceasefire agreed between Moscow and Ankara last March, the situation may deteriorate from one moment to the next, affecting millions of people locked up in a small territory. For the moment, the truce seems to be holding. However, according to recent information, it is increasingly being violated, and it seems that Assad is determined to recover Idlib.
The Western democracies have one more chance in Syria to avoid being accused by the court of history of neglecting the fate of that people. They must ensure that the ceasefire agreement, signed on March 5, is fully respected and, above all, ensure that both the Russians and the Turks, as well as the other belligerents in the territory, withdraw their weapons and soldiers and give the Syrians the opportunity to decide their future for themselves, under the supervision, of course, of the international community. However, at least for the time being, no part of this strategy seems feasible.
The Idlib issue
In order to understand the reasons behind the conflict in Idlib, it is necessary to understand the strategic importance that this small province has for each of the warring parties, that is for Syria and its allies on the one hand, and for Turkey on the other.
Idlib Province in north-west Syria was the first in which a “free territory” was established in 2012. It is still a base for anti-Assad groups and jihadists. To the north it borders Turkey, to the south-west it adjoins the region of Latakia, ancestral territory of the Assads, and to the north-east the Kurdish-majority district of Afrin, conquered in March 2018 by Turkey and used as a buffer zone between the two neighboring countries, especially – as we mentioned in a previous article – with a view to contain Kurdish militia.
This province – or rather, what remains under the control of Turkey today – since January, 2019, has been practically administered by the jihadist group, Hayat Tahrir al Sham (“Organization for the Liberation of the Levant”, HTS), which was at first tied to al-Qaeda, but then detached from it so as not to be included in the “black list” of terrorist movements drawn up by the USA. It seems that they took command of the territory with the consent of Turkey, whose objective at that moment was to push back Kurdish forces from the border. In fact, many “rebels” participated during those months in Turkish military operations against the Kurds of the People’s Protection Units, with the objective of liberating the Arab villages of the province of Aleppo, on the border with Idlib. The locals complain that “it was Turkey who handed over the keys of Idlib to Hayat tahrir al Sham.”
Compared to Isis, this jihadist group has a greater capacity to manage relations with communities in the places where it is engaged. In fact, its members have mixed with the natives, with the anti-Assad “rebels” and with other radical groups who have come here from other parts of the country, concentrating almost exclusively on the fight against the Damascus regime. Instead of conquering the territory and then “cleaning it up”, ferociously eliminating its enemies, as the Islamic State did, they tried to gain the trust of the local population and others who had sought refuge in the territory during the long conflict.
The province of Idlib is therefore of great importance to both contenders. For Syria, it is a matter of re-exerting sovereignty over its territory, of definitively defeating its most stubborn enemies, who have been barricaded in the province during these years of war. In fact, according to the Sochi Agreement between Turkey and Russia in 2018, numerous jihadists of different orientations, together with their families, have been transferred to this area from other parts of Syria. It is also important for Assad to occupy this territory because it is adjacent to the “Alawite family fiefdom,” where his clan lives and where his most trusted men, including his bodyguard, come from.
For Turkey, instead, it is a question of maintaining the management of an important outpost in Syrian territory, to control, beyond its national borders, the portion of territory occupied by the Kurds and today administered by the Party of the Democratic Union (PYD), that is, the Syrian branch of the PKK, which Ankara considers a terrorist organization. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an knows that to lose this territory would mean for him to be excluded from the peace negotiations and to have no role in the reconstruction of Syria. At the moment, 70 percent of this territory is occupied by Assad (supported by the powerful Russian air force), the rest by the Kurds (armed by the USA) and only a small part by the Turks, who are present through an Arab contingent. Turkey, in short, is not willing to give up its interests in the border area, even if this entails the start of a military operation, which is in fact underway.
Russia, for its part, is determined to consolidate the victories achieved and to safeguard the conquered areas. After five years of war, Vladimir Putin “wants a victory for his protégé Assad in Idlib, the last province controlled by ‘rebels,’ and for his expansionist aims over the region. He wants to declare an epochal strategic triumph against the West, in particular at the expense of the United States.”
What is Putin’s strategy in the Syrian war? Probably that of strengthening his major role in the international political scene, possibly with this being recognized by the USA. He knows that the war in Syria must end as soon as possible; his country, in fact, is exhausted by the economic crisis and coronavirus; moreover, as shown by the latest surveys, his popularity at home is at an all-time low. Putin is aware that the strategic future of Russia is not to be the Middle East, but in Europe, especially the Ukraine and other neighboring countries, and he wants to prevent them from succumbing to US flattery in both economic and military terms.
The Turkish operation ‘Spring Shield’
After conquering one after the other the areas in the hands of the opposition – from Aleppo to Eastern Ghouta, from Homs to Daraa – using the Russian Air Force and, on the ground, the soldiers and heavy artillery of Iran and of Hezbollah, Assad already intended to target Idlib, where there was the greatest concentration of his opponents and fighters who had refused reconciliation with Damascus. Moscow signed an agreement with Turkey in Sochi in September 2018, by which a de facto ceasefire was declared for Idlib province. Since then, a slow policy of erosion has been implemented by Damascus, which began with sporadic attacks and ended with a massive Moscow-led operation.
Since the beginning of this year, Damascus’ interventions in the province have been increasing in intensity. Although the area was covered by the ceasefire, Assad wanted to regain control of the M4 and M5 motorways, which link the capital to the Mediterranean coast and Aleppo. In addition, Moscow accused Ankara of not disarming the jihadist groups active in the province, as provided for in the agreement.
On February 2, the Syrian army killed eight Turkish soldiers in Idlib province. In response to this hostile act, the Turkish armed forces attacked a number of Syrian military posts. A few days later, the Russian Air Force and the Syrian army conquered 20 villages and towns in the south of the province, reaching the city of Saraqeb. President Erdo?an then demanded the Damascus army withdraw from the area surrounding the Turkish observation posts established in Sochi. Meanwhile, about 9,000 soldiers and 2,000 Turkish military vehicles advanced into Idlib province.
On February 28, a Turkish convoy was hit, with the deaths of 36 soldiers. Under other circumstances, this hostile act would have triggered a war between the different countries, but this was not the case here. Erdo?an has avoided blaming Russia for the serious incident, and the Kremlin has shrugged off all responsibility for these events. But, according to some analysts, the dynamics of the events, which began when the Turks attacked Russian planes flying over the area, must be interpreted differently. Indeed, it even seems that the order to attack came from Moscow itself.
Immediately after these events, the Turkish President ordered a full-scale attack, calling this military operation, in his own style, “Spring Shield.” Through it, Erdo?an had several objectives. In the first place, he wanted to stop the offensive by Russia and its Damascus allies “on the last shred of Syria in the hands of the rebels,” thus averting a humanitarian catastrophe, that is, the massacre of one million civilians who, in order to escape the bombing of the Russian air force, had crowded the Turkish-Syrian border. Secondly, he wanted to give a show of force, “to make all those involved in Syria understand that Idlib, for Turkey, is the red line. Finally – or rather in principle – Operation Spring Shield allows the Turkish Armed Forces to take a significant step forward toward the Aleppo-Mosul line.”
This is the border of Greater Turkey delineated in January 1920 by the last Ottoman Parliament, where the Kemalists had the majority. The so-called “National Pact” provided that the new Republic of Turkey on that border would include the cities of Aleppo, Mosul, Arbil and Kirkuk, cities that, instead, the international community assigned to Syria in the negotiations. For Erdo?an today it is important to gain control over the city of Aleppo, which is located a few kilometers from the province of Idlib.
The Turkish attack was very determined, a sign of the resolve with which the Turks intend to dominate this province and take root in Syria. The operation forced Assad to slow down the attack and allowed the rebels to occupy some positions in the southern part of Idlib. Since September 2015, when Moscow went to the rescue of Damascus, it was the first time that the Syrians had retreated in the war. This military operation partially changed the balance between Ankara and Moscow. After these events Putin invited President Erdo?an to Moscow for a conference on the ongoing conflict.
The humanitarian front: between poverty and coronavirus
On the humanitarian front, as in previous campaigns, the situation for refugees and displaced persons became severe. While carrying out the military operation against the “Orthodox-Shiite” coalition, Erdo?an announced that its coastguard and the army would no longer stop refugees fleeing from Turkey to Greece, i.e. to the EU. This in fact happened.
It was a tactic to force the EU, at that time intent on managing the coronavirus health emergency, to support Turkey’s political cause and territorial claims. The EU had offered EUR 700 million to help the new refugees, but this was not accepted. Turkey, said Erdo?an, did not want money from the EU – at least not that comparatively small sum! – but instead wanted other countries to relocate the three million Syrian refugees currently in its territory. The Turkish president actually wanted the EU to support his claims against Russia and other regional actors. In response, European governments thundered: “It is unacceptable that human beings should be used as a means of political pressure.” In reality this was the case, and in a few weeks more than 40,000 refugees left Turkey, crossing the Evros River, near the city of Edirne, to enter Greek territory. The Greek military did everything they could – even using tear gas and attacking the small boats that arrived on the islands – to send them back, but to no avail.
So the old camps of the previous wave of refugees – first of all the one in Moria, at the hotspot on the island of Lesbos – were filled with new guests. The living conditions in these centers are still very basic, and the coronavirus emergency makes living at close quarters even more precarious. Already, in Moria there are cases of Covid-19. People affected by the virus were immediately isolated and treated. Numerous cases of infection were also recorded in other centers.
How did the EU behave? The President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, thanked Greece for acting as a “shield” against immigration, and gave assurances that the Frontex agency – the EU’s external border control agency – would send men and means to deal with the situation. But the EU did not specify whether and how the more than 40,000 refugees on the Greek islands in inhuman and unacceptable conditions would be relocated.
From the humanitarian point of view, the situation has become even more complicated on the internal front, i.e. in the province of Idlib, where about one million people, mostly children, have left their homes since the beginning of this year to escape the war and the continuous Russian bombing. They have spent the winter months in a “no man’s land” trapped between the Assad advance and the concrete wall that separates Syria from Turkey. Last May alone, several hundred thousand people returned to their homes, although the situation had not fully stabilized. Others have been “relocated” to the area. In any case, the emergency continues and might become very serious due to the spread of Covid-19 among the refugees.
The ceasefire agreement between Ankara and Moscow
The agreement reached by Turkey and Russia on March 5, 2020, and still in force, can be summarized in three main points. The first concerns the establishment of a ceasefire in Idlib province from midnight between March 5 and 6. The second concerns the demarcation of a humanitarian corridor along the M4 international motorway, linking Latakia to Aleppo, six kilometers north and six kilometers south on the arterial road crossing the region. According to the two leaders, this should serve to facilitate the movement of civilians in the area and the relocation of the refugees who are crowded on the Syrian-Turkish border in the Idlib area. The third point, which is very important for the success of the agreement, is a joint Russian-Turkish patrol of the above-mentioned corridor on the M4.
The talks took place in the Kremlin and lasted about six hours. There was a willingness on the part of both leaders to come to an understanding and to stop the conflict. “Let’s not risk our relationship for Idlib,” Putin told Erdo?an before the discussions began. The talks started with the leaders discussing the reasons that had undermined and thwarted the previous 2018 agreement. According to Putin, the Turks in Idlib should have disarmed the terrorists and had not done so; according to Erdo?an, the Russians should have stopped the long counteroffensive of the Damascus government.
Then they started discussing the three points of the ceasefire agreement. With this agreement, Turkish propaganda was trying to obtain the maximum internal consensus, explaining that the southern borders of Turkey were thus moved practically to the A4 motorway in Idlib province; that the problem of Syrian refugees had been partly solved; and that the fight against the PKK had increased. This position was designed to help Erdo?an deal with a difficult situation at home. However, in the negotiations he proposed to Putin to “rebuild Syria together with the proceeds of Gaz?ra oil and gas, which are currently in the hands of the PKK.”
The statements made by the two leaders at the end of the talks and the agreement differed substantially. While Erdo?an stated that Turkey “had the right to respond to the attacks by Damascus,” Putin said that Damascus had sovereignty over the whole of Syria, including Idlib, and this “made the Turkish operation illogical and illegitimate.” The agreement, Putin reiterated, had to be concluded in any case, especially to end the suffering of the Syrians.
Joint Turkish-Russian patrols of a section of the M4 began on March 15, while interventions by the Syrian army continued to hit the area. “From March 5 to May 7, the total number of refugees returning to Idlib and Aleppo exceeded 250,000. […] On May 11, hundreds of displaced persons and Syrian refugees protested in the streets of Aleppo, demanding to return to their homes, located in areas mostly controlled by the Syrian regime.”
It seems that the patrol operations in recent times have met with resistance from the civilian population. In fact, many fear that their areas, currently controlled by the rebels, will be ceded to Assad. The situation is still very unstable and it is not possible to predict how it will evolve in the future. Suffice it to say that the agreement signed by Putin and Erdo?an in Moscow was not accepted by the Hayat tahrir al Sham group, which in fact still manages the Turkish-controlled area of Idlib.
The truce seems to be holding for the moment. Russia and Turkey appear to want to prevent the situation from getting out of hand. It should also be borne in mind that in recent years the two countries have strengthened their economic and trade ties, cooperating increasingly in the energy and military sectors. Moscow is Ankara’s second largest trading partner. In addition, Russia sells cereals and gas to Turkey, and the new TurkStream pipeline will allow it to export its “blue gold” to Europe, bypassing Ukraine. Although Turkey is part of NATO, Moscow sells its S-400 missiles to Ankara and is building the first Turkish nuclear power plant on its territory. In this situation, neither side is taking any risks over Idlib.
The global health emergency must also be taken into account. At the moment the two countries are fighting another equally dangerous and deadly internal war against the coronavirus. This creates instability, discontent among the people and an economic recession whose effects are not yet known. It seems unlikely, therefore, that, at least for now, the great powers will commit themselves to activate conflicts, especially if these are dictated by dreams of power.
An appeal for a global ceasefire was launched on March 24 by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, and was immediately taken up by Pope Francis. In the course of the Angelus of March 29, he asked everyone, especially those responsible for the nations, to make “a renewed commitment to overcome rivalries. Conflicts are not resolved through war! It is necessary to overcome antagonisms and contrasts through dialogue and a constructive search for peace.”
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 07 art. 5, 0620: 10.32009/22072446.0720.5
. See P. Del Re, “Siria, 10 anni di guerra: 384 mila morti e 11 milioni di profughi”, in la Repubblica, March 15, 2020; O. Cuthbert, “La guerra senza fine”, in Internazionale, March 20, 2020, 29.
. The price demanded by human traffickers to cross the border is on average 3,000 euros per person, and there is no guarantee of success. For an average Syrian citizen this figure is considerable, and is usually collected with the contribution of family members.
. This is how a French journalist describes the place: “A wave of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children is ending up in a narrow and overpopulated territory. They flood the fields, cover the hills, invade the cities. They penetrate schools and shops, infiltrate ruined buildings, the narrowest recesses, the first floor of a mosque, the basement of a football stadium” (B. Barthe, “L’ostinata sopravvivenza degli sfollati di Idlib”, in Internazionale, March 20, 2020, 28).
. M. A. Jalil, “Gli interessi di Russia e Turchia”, ibid., February 28, 2020, 53.
. See G. Sale, “La Turchia e le ‘enclave’ curde in Siria”, in Civ. Catt. 2018 I 476-490.
. C. Hayek, “I siriani di Idlib traditi dalla Turchia”, in Internazionale, February 7, 2020, 26.
. S. Tisdall, “Il gioco pericoloso di Ankara in Siria”, ibid. March 6, 2020, 32.
. See “Sondaggio, Vladimir Putin crolla, vicino al minimo storico: il coronavirus è la sfida più difficile in 20 anni di presidenza” (www.liberoquotidiano.it/news/esteri/22232671/sondaggio-vladimir-putin-crollo-coronavirus), April 22, 2020.
. See G. Crescente, “Russia e Turchia fanno un passo indietro dal baratro” (https://www.internazionale.it/opinione/gabriele-crescente/2020/03/06/russia-turchia-accordo-idlib), March 6, 2020.
. See S. Tisdall, “Il gioco pericoloso di Ankara in Siria”, op. cit., 32.
. D. Santoro, “La guerra tra Turchia e Russia a Idlib non è inevitabile” (www.limesonline.com/idlib-siria-soldati-turchi-uccisi-guerra-in-siria), February 28, 2020.
. See “Strage di soldati turchi in Siria. Erdogan annuncia: non fermeremo più i migranti verso l’Europa. Onu: ‘Rischio escalation’” (www.repubblica.it/esteri/), February 27, 2020.
. See “La situazione sull’isola hotspot greca di Lesbo e nel campo di Moria”, May 8, 2020.
. F. Mannocchi, “Nella trappola di Erdo?an”, L’Espresso, March 8, 2020, 54.
. Despite the ceasefire, the conflict between the belligerents has never stopped. According to the Response Coordination Group, it has caused two civilian casualties and still allowed 234,597 displaced persons to return to their homes in the rural areas of Idlib and Aleppo. See “Siria: Idlib a due mesi dal cessate il fuoco” (www.sicurezzainternazionale.luiss.it/2020/05/06/siria-idlib-due-mesi-dal-cessate-il-fuoco), May 6, 2020.
. On the spread of Covid-19 in Syria, see A. Spadaro, “Syria and Coronavirus. No Time to Waste”, in Civ. Catt. En. April 2020, https://www.laciviltacattolica.com/syria-and-coronavirus-no-time-to-waste/
. See A. Scott, “Putin ed Erdo?an cercano una tregua per Idlib”, in Il Sole 24 Ore, March 6, 2020.
. See “Siria. Turchia-Russia: cessate il fuoco a Idlib” (www.nena-news.it/siria-turchia-russia-cessate-il-fuoco-a-idlib), March 6, 2020.
. This was a very important point for Turkey. It is worth remembering that Erdo?an had implemented the threat to unleash the flow of refugees toward the EU in an attempt to appease Turkish public opinion. Already dissatisfied with the presence of millions of Syrian refugees on its territory, Turks were now seeing their own soldiers die in Syria. In fact, 56 Turkish soldiers have died in Idlib since the beginning of February. That is why the Turkish President, on this point, had to give good news to his citizens, claiming as part of government propaganda that the refugee crisis was being resolved and that Turkey had partly lightened this burden. See M. Gurcan, “Le questioni da risolvere dopo la tregua di Idlib”, in Internazionale, May 13, 2020, 45.
. D. Santoro, “Nel Mediterraneo orientale la Turchia cerca l’impero, L’Italia ne sarà espulsa” (www.limesonline.com/cartaceo/nel-mediterraneo-orientale-la-turchia-cerca-limpero), May 11, 2020.
. A. Scott, “Putin ed Erdo?an cercano una tregua per Idlib”, op. cit.
. “Siria, Idlib: un quadro della situazione delle ultime ore” (sicurezza internazionale), May 12, 2020.
. See ibid.
. It must also be kept in mind that between the months of April and May, the Israeli Air Force (which acts with American consent) carried out at least seven bombings in Syria, on places occupied by Iranians or Hezbollah (in the province of Homs and in that of Palmyra), killing about 30 people. Thus continues the conflict between Israel and Iran, fought however in a third territory. See B. Valli, “Israele-Iran, la guerra segreta”, in Corriere della Sera, May 14, 2020.
. See G. Agliastro, “Putin-Erdo?an, intesa sulla Siria: a Idlib scatta il cessate il fuoco”, in La Stampa, March 6, 2020.
. Francis, Angelus, March 29, 2020, in w2.vatican.va