PARIS: As hope dissipates over the ability of Turkish observation points in northwestern Syria to limit violations by the Syrian government and allied Russian forces, the fact that nine points sit surrounded by Damascus’ forces is sparking controversy over their role moving forward.
The Turkish army began establishing observation points in northwestern Syria in October 2017. They were meant to monitor the ceasefire system in accordance with the sixth round of the Astana agreement between Moscow, Ankara and Tehran, to establish a “de-escalation zone” in Idlib.
Contrary to the terms of the agreement, northwestern Syria is now seeing a massive wave of displacement due to military operations on the “de-escalation zone” by the Syrian government’s forces and its allied militias. The result has seen Damascus seize control of wide swathes of territory within the so-called “buffer zone” amid a lax response from Turkey, indicating the uselessness of its observation points.
The nine besieged observation points are spread out along the frontline between pro-government and opposition forces in rural Hama, Idlib and Aleppo. The first one sits in the city of Morek in rural Hama, which returned to Damascus’ control on August 23, 2018. The point remained inside the city with the direct military protection of Russisan forces. The second point lies in the village of Serman in rural Idlib. It fell back under the control of government forces on December 22, 2019. That point also remains in place, under Russian protection.
The third observation point is in the rural Idlib town of Mar Hatat, which was recaptured by government forces on January 27, 2020, while the fourth point sits in Tal al-Reyhan–also known as al-Rumman–in the countryside outside of Saraqeb near the M5 Highway that connects Aleppo and Damascus. This point was established recently, though with government forces encroaching on the third and fourth points, the two still remain under Russian military protection.
Turkey established a fifth observation point at the intersection of the M5 and M4, which connects Aleppo and Latakia, but, like the sixth point in Tal Touqan east of Saraqeb, it remains under siege by government forces, without effective protection from the Russian military.
The seventh point, known as the Seyroum point, which overlooks the M5 Highway, was also encircled as a result of the government’s recapture of the city of Saraqeb on February 6 of this year. The eighth is the the Tal al-Ais point, the last of Turkey’s observation points in rural western Aleppo. It was surrounded following government recapture of Tal al-Ais on February 9, without any fight from opposition forces. Finally, there is the Rashideen al-Rabaa point, which is located in the Rashideen area of rural Aleppo, and was recaptured by Damascus on February 11.
Supplying observation points after encirclement
A military source within Turkish-backed opposition forces revealed to Mari the mechanism of supplying the surrounded Turkish observation points:
“A Turkish convoy enters via the Kafr Lousin border crossing in rural northern Idlib, which is controlled by the Turkish-backed Failaq al-Sham faction. Once inside Syrian territory, the convoy is under the protection of Failaq a-Sham, whose points sit along the route travelled by the Turkish convoy. It is in direct contact with all of these points so that it can determine any potential problem as it occurs.”
The source added that the supply convoy “normally enters on the second day of each month, in the early hours of the morning, before heading to the encircled points in Morek and Serman.”
Failaq a-Sham accompanies the Turkish convoy with five or six military vehicles equipped with heavy weaponry until it reaches the final stretch of land under opposition control. The convoy then continues on its way to the observation points under Russian police protection, which accompanies it from the first point under government control until arrival at the observation point, then afterward during its exit.
According to the opposition military source, the Turkish military convoy “consists of replacement personnel as well as ammunition, logistical equipment, food and medical supplies to last a full month.”
“The Turkish convoy used to take the M5 before the government captured it,” the source added. “Since the latest regime advances, the Turkish army hasn’t serviced its [observation] points.”
The future of the Turkish observation points
Following the latest military developments in northwestern Syria, government forces are closer to taking full control of the M4 and M5 highways, thus “achieving the mutual understandings of the Astana talks, which stipulated that government forces would hold complete control of the international highways as a matter of sovereignty,” according to an opposition force who asked not to be named.
The source told Mari that government control over the international roads was a Russian request approved by Turkey, noting that “once the regime takes complete control over the international highways, there will be Russian-Turkish military observation patrols conducted along the routes, ensuring mutual trade between the two sides.”
On the other hand, Turkey aims through its observation points to copy the experience of southern Syria, where Damascus retook full control of the villages surrounding the international highways, on condition that government personnel have a limited presence in the military barracks, and without establishing military points within the towns themselves. This would be in exchange for guarantees of safe return of residents to their hometowns under renewed government control, while Turkey would find assistance for civilians impacted by the latest displacement crisis of one million new people, according to the source.
However, the source cast doubt on the potential success of civilians’ return to hometowns in northwestern Syria, due to the “difficulty of convincing people to return amid current conditions.”
“There is an absence of trust between civilians and the government’s security apparatus, which did not adhere to similar agreements in the south.”
The opposition source also noted that Turkey is still coordinating with Russia in accordance with mutual interests, despite its criticism towards Moscow regarding the violations of government forces and its military operations in northwestern Syria. According to the source, Turkey is not interested in the Syrian opposition factions, but rather coordinates with them pertaining to its interests alone.
For his part, expert and strategic analyst Ahmad Rahhal said that “it is unclear what the missions are of the Turkish observation points, as they are not intermediary forces between the government and the armed opposition, nor are they there to count the violations that are taking place.”
“We don’t know their mission, and it isn’t understood anyway. We repeatedly ask about its duties, but there are no answers from anyone.”
The presence of the Turkish observation points may be closer to Ankara’s “attempt to protect its national security, and prevent any cross-border threats from Syria, whether from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [PKK] or other terrorist or hostile groups,” according to Dr. Muhammad Sarmini, president of the research group Jusoor for Studies. There are likely “reasons that haven’t been announced for the presence of the observation points,” he told Mari.
Sarmini said he expects the observation points to remain in place as long as there arenational security threats, given that official Turkish statements confirmed the points would stay in Syria, with the possibility of Ankara sending additional forces.
“I expect that we are entering a long-term ceasefire period, with the weakening of Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham and the lessening of its role,” Sarmini said. “Everything that is happening indicates an attempt to curtail it.”