Syrian Army Gains as Turkey Resets its Strategy in Idlib

One of the last Turkish-backed rebels strongholds and a current hotbed in the Syrian conflict is drawing international attention once again. Turkish forces are building up in the city, while the Russian-backed Syrian Army is approaching. Worries about another major intensification in the refugee and humanitarian crisis are growing. These worries seem justified, especially considering that the population of the city has almost doubled since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, reaching approximately three million people at the moment. Under thesee circumstances, it is understood the tremendous impact a full-scale confrontation would have in the stability of the wider region.

Turkish Concerns

Even under the pressing conditions, Ankara is determined to consolidate the Turkish presence in Idlib under any circumstances. More than 100 military convoys have been deployed in the area, over the last few days. The strategic significance of Idlib has led Turkey to install approximately 10,000 soldiers, in the form of armored and mechanized infantry brigades, with special forces teams also having been dispatched during the last months. Turkey is trying to limit the Syrian advances in Idlib at any cost, as President Bashar Al Assad could turn to other key areas held by Turkish or Turkey-backed forces once Idlib is once again under Syrian control. Ankara is particularly worried that a successful Syrian offensive in Idlib could put region from Afrin to Jarablus at risk, namely all the Turkish gains that have been achieved over the last three years through Operations Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch. To this end, Turkish President Recep Erdogan will keep building up the Turkish military presence in Idlib despite the growing tensions and chance of wider confrontation.

The Syrian Army’s Recent Strategic Advances

In the meantime, Syrian regime forces have continued advancing towards Idlib, reaching a distance less than 10 kilometers from the town center. This is the closest to Idlib that Syrian forces have gotten since the Syrian conflict intensified back in 2012. On Tuesday, February 11, regime troops took control of the M5 highway as well, another major strategic gain for Assad, considering the M5 is the main road between Damascus and Aleppo. Capturing the M5 brings most of the arterial roads in Syria under government control. Syrian forces managed to recapture the highway after focusing on the western suburbs of Aleppo and regaining control of some of the last rebel-held positions in the area. The latest victories of the Syrian government came without strong opposition by the Turkish-backed rebels, or by the Turkish forces stationed in Idlib. The control of these strategic points by government forces enables the Syrian Army to be much more well-prepared and logistically efficient, as the last major offensive to retake Idlib and eliminate the last rebel cells is likely soon approaching.

Unilateral Turkish Action Unlikely Without Kremlin Approval

Last week Erdogan warned Syria—before the Turkish Parliament—to step back from the Turkish posts in Idlib threatening that otherwise the Turkish army would drive them out by force. As mentioned earlier, Ankara will seek a stronger military presence in Idlib. This is a necessary step, so the Turkish President can keep up with his aggressive rhetoric and be in a position to threaten the Syrian regime, calling them to respect the Turkish precautions. However, the activity of the Syrian Army so far indicates that the Assad regime is not willing to back down amidst the Turkish statements and threats. Apparently, Turkey would be able to materialize these warnings, only with Moscow’s blessing; a highly unlikely scenario, considering that President Putin perceives the Syrian government as a much more reliable ally in the region, since the Russian intervention has been the turning point for the prevalence of the current regime, and to some extent Damascus is still (and will be) dependent on Moscow. At the same time, Kremlin would not favor the continuous expansion of the Turkish presence, which might put the aspirations of Ankara out of control.

Thus, the key point for the developments from now own will be Moscow’s stance. The airspace over Idlib is controlled by the Russian forces, therefore Turkey would not be able to resist a potential Syrian offensive with no air force cover, regardless of how many Turkish forces have been mobilized in the ground. As has been discussed in previous articles, Erdogan hardy ever makes decisions where the risks are too high. In this case, we can conclude that the Turkish military build-up in Idlib is not aiming for a direct full-scale confrontation with the Syrian army; on the contrary, Ankara is trying to use this expanded military presence in the region in order to obtain a better position at the negotiations table.

While Assad’s forces are advancing, Ankara is struggling to boost its position and buy time, while the confirmed deaths of Turkish servicemen in Idlib rise further the political grievances at home. The ultimatum that Erdogan has announced remains to be confirmed—or not—by developments on the ground in the weeks to follow.