PARIS: Political negotiations between Russia and Turkey have reached a dead end, a fact apparent on the ground since last month as Aleppo’s western countryside flares up amid a continued push by pro-government and Russian forces into southern Aleppo.
With Russian support, government forces are vying to cross Idlib and open its international highways, while also aiming at rural western Aleppo in order to put political pressure on Turkey–especially after the failure of the latest ceasefire agreed upon between Russia and Turkey, which came into effect on January 12.
But government forces and Russian fighters violated the agreement by continuing their air and ground campaign on southern Idlib as well as escalating airstrikes on western Aleppo province, prompting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to say that “what is happening in Idlib is an inconvenience.” He added that he would discuss the issue with his Russian counterpart during the Berlin summit on Libya.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu later appeared last Wednesday on CNN Turk, where he posited that “the Syrian regime believes in a military solution, and it must be stopped. If the conflict turns into a street war, this war will not end.” He added that the ceasefire would not collapse, but that if the attacks and violations continue, it would be impossible to talk about further truces.
A new battle
Damascus began its assault on the countryside west of Aleppo at the end of December, escalating airstrikes on cities and towns while aiming its firepower on opposition forces there, in an attempt to send a “political message to the Turkish,” according to military expert Ahmad Rahhal. “This is due to the differences between Ankara and Moscow on the Libya file,” he said.
The Syrian Response Coordination Group, which monitors humanitarian crises, counted 43 civilians killed, including 13 children and three women, as well as 31,419 people displaced since the ceasefire was announced, according to a statement released on Monday.
Turkey did not take long in responding to Moscow’s message, with Ankra providing some opposition factions on the Idlib front with increased supplies of TOW missiles and a “limited green light,” leading to a “new military balance in northern Syria,” according to Rahhal.
The opposition factions, not least of which Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS), launched their own counterattack against government and Russian forces in rural eastern Idlib last Friday, soon announcing their control over the strategic towns of Tal Khatra and Mseitaf.
Moscow has yet to instruct government forces to launch actual ground operations in western Aleppo, unlike what has happened in Idlib. According to Rahhal, “the terrain of western Aleppo is different from that of Idlib, as it isn’t so flat.” Opposition factions in western Aleppo also “haven’t fought for more than two years, and are ready,” which could be to the detriment of Russia and Damascus. It is likely, says Rahhal, that “new international agreements could take place that could postpone or stop a possible military campaign.”
In September 2018, Moscow and Ankara reached an agreement in northwestern Syria, to establish a demilitarized “buffer” zone 15-20 km deep, along the borderline between government and opposition forces. The agreement included a ceasefire and Turkish-Russian patrols to monitor the area, as well as restoration of commercial traffic on the two international roads, Damascus-Aleppo (M5) and Aleppo-Lattakia (M4), which did not happen.
Since February 2019, Damascus and its allies have continued their military campaigns in Idlib, advancing opposition-held areas on the southern countryside of Idlib. Most recently, government forces began moving towards the city of Maarat al-Numan on the M5 road in December. The Syrian government and Moscow consider the control international roads a sovereign issue “agreed” in the Astana talks, which the Syrian opposition factions reject.
Speaking with Mari, the leader of the Fifth Division of the opposition’s National Liberation Front (NLF), Mustafa Maarati, denied the existence of any agreements at Astana between Russia, Turkey and Iran that allow government forces to regain control of international roads. He stressed that opposition fighters had halted attacks by government forces on the town of Jarjanaz, a major hub for government units seeking to advance toward Maarat a-Numan. The town links the countrysides of Aleppo and Hama provinces, and looks out over the Aleppo-Damascus highway.
According to a source familiar with opposition factions, it was agreed in Astana that government forces and state institutions would enter the areas surrounding the M5 and M4. The source asked not to be named for security reasons. Russia wants to “facilitate the commercial activity of the Syrian government along the international highways, while restoring Syrian sovereignty,” he says. Turkey, on the other hand, seeks to “prevent opposition factions from targeting Russian interests.”
Rahhal adds that the goal “is not to secure the Damascus-Aleppo highway, but rather a route from Gaziantep to Amman.”
Disputes over implementation
The Astana talks, which have reached 14 rounds, stipulated many items, which were agreed upon by the Syrian opposition factions, including ensuring the sovereignty of the “Syrian Arab Republic”, along with opening international roads, and fighting “terrorist” organizations affiliated with Al Qaeda.
Meanwhile, Turkey is working to “reconciling” their strategic relationship with the Russians and the opposition factions, but the Russians “were able to separate the Turks from the opposition factions,” according to Rahhal.
He added that the Russians “may respond to the interests of the Turks, but this is in isolation from the opposition factions and their demands.” This enables the Syrian government to “re-impose itself as a de facto power, and the international community must deal with it on the basis of the fait accompli policy,” while Russia is working to return “state institutions”, including security institutions, especially since the Syrian state is working within the “policy of security.”
However, a researcher on Syrian affairs at the Bridges Center, Abdel-Wahab Al-Assi, confirmed to Mari that differences have emerged between the guarantors of Astana’s talks, given the “absence of a common understanding on the implementation of the provisions, as well as the short and insufficient implementation period.”
Those differences emerged when Russia mobilized a large military force to invade the de-escalation zone in rural Idlib and the northern Hama in August 2018, before the Turkish absorbed the attack, and signed with the Russians a “Sochi” agreement in September of the same year.
However, the Russian and Syrian government military campaigns there did not stop, with Russia launching its first campaign after “Sochi” in November 2018. The onslaught was limited to missile and air strikes without a ground incursion, in an attempt to pressure the Turkish side to accelerate the application of the Sochi provisions.
And in February 2019, Russia returned to launch a third military campaign, taking the form of a ground invasion in May of the same year. It ended with government forces controlling the entire southern sector of the de-escalation zone, and cordoning off the Turkish observation post in Morek. With this change in the map of control, the Russians were quick to announce a unilateral truce at the end of August 2019, “for fear that the breach of a ceasefire would undermine the Sochi Agreement,” and then held a high-level bilateral meeting with Turkey in Moscow, “to work towards establishing calm, “Assi says.
However, as a result of the Turks ’failure to respond to the interests and concerns of the Russians regarding the protection of the Hmeimim military base and the locations of the Russian forces’ deployment in the areas of de-escalation areas, and the opening of international roads and crossings through Sochi, with Turkey’s guarantee, Russia was prompted to “continue to adopt the option of military settlement, to secure a single guarantee on the buffer zone.” Accordingly, the Russians launched the fourth military campaign in mid-November 2019, which is still underway.
Commenting on the Turkish position towards the successive military campaigns of the Russians and government forces, commander Maarati told Mari that Turkey “has not abandoned the opposition factions,” noting that Ankra is “fighting on several fronts” and that Turkish observation points are still present.
“The factions will continue to defend the region, and we have a certain strategy not to leave this region because it means a lot to us. It was freed by the blood of our fighters, and we consider it a mini-Syria, as it contains millions of Syrians from different regions.”
Where to go from here?
According to Rahhal, the visit this month of US special Syria envoy James Jeffrey to Turkey has brought about “positive repercussions” on the opposition factions. As a result, the coming days may see changes including “an increase in tension between Moscow and Ankara” in exchange for a “warmth” in US-Turkish relations.
He stressed that northwest Syria is heading for more escalation in the air strikes, as well as the use of military force to control new pockets of the opposition “in the event that the Russians are able to do so,” especially since “the new global mood is to restore the strategic balance in Syrian by supporting the opposition with TOW missiles.”
Researcher al-Assi agrees, adding that the Russians “will continue with the military option unless Turkey responds to the implementation of the Sochi Agreement,” taking into account the “new reality on the ground. Moscow is relying on a method of “slowly picking off pockets of the buffer zone and neutralizing the effectiveness of Turkish observation little by little.”