Idlib dominated the agenda again
While Ankara has paid close attention to firstly “Operation Peace Spring” in the east of the Euphrates, then the maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean, Libya, now Idlib, east of southern Hatay province, is on Turkey’s agenda one more time, as a focal point of a new crisis.
In order to understand the graveness of the situation, we should attract notice to a result of “Operation Dawn of Idlib 2,” which was kicked off by the Assad regime and Russia to Idlib’s southeast on Dec. 19.
After the regime’s capture of Al-Surman town, in the southeast of the province, the eighth observation post of the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) located in the town has been left within regime’s territory as of Dec. 22.
Likewise, TSK’s ninth observation post in the town of Morek, at the southernmost corner of Idlib just below Khan Shaykhun, was also left within the regime territory during the Assad Army’s operation last August. Henceforth with recent developments, two of TSK’s military observation posts out of 12 in Idlib, have been left within regions under Assad forces’ control.
Notwithstanding, security sources in Ankara say that there is no concerning situation for the troops in the observation posts. They say that the eighth observation post will carry out their activities just like the ninth observation post is since August and that there is no distress about an interception on the supply routes.
Here, a point should be highlighted. The Assad regime seized control of northern Hama countryside in August, with an operation started in May, with great difficulty despite a strong air support from Russia. On the other hand, it seems surprising that the regime seized control of a dozen villages in Idlib’s southeast, a region which is nearly the same size as northern Hama countryside, in just four to five days.
How did this capture become so easy this time? In an informatory analysis, titled “The last step before the great crisis in Idlib,” Associate Professor Serhat Erkmen, one of the most important academics in Turkey regarding Idlib, answers this question in an article published on fikirturu.com news portal, over a series of factors.
The first of these factors is range reduction. Since the Assad Regime’s forces were simultaneously spread to four fronts in the previous operation, it failed to focus fire and manpower to one region. However, in the last operation, it achieved firepower three or four times more than the previous operation, by focusing on one narrow region. In his analysis, Erkmen also gives a very interesting intelligence. According to him, the last operation also received serious fire power from the military exercise Russian and Syrian navies are conducting in the eastern Mediterranean, meaning that Russia had hit Idlib from the Mediterranean.
The second factor is the coherent activities of the Syrian army and its affiliated militia forces, which appeared to be disorganized in the previous operation, to act more harmoniously within the chain of command.
Furthermore, armed groups backed by Iran, who did not engage in last summer’s operation, did not only provide active support but also provided support with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). A conspicuous factor is that the Syrian National Army (formerly acknowledged as the Free Syrian Army) has stayed far away from the operation zone. It seems that the pressure Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) exercised on the region’s people and local groups have detracted these latter from the former.
In addition to the weather, the fact that the land is plain and unprotected made it easier for the Assad Army, who was
carrying out the operation with armored units.
Truly, the air attacks Russian and Syrian fighter jets have been launching without distinction, have generated an overwhelming pressure on the civilians in Idlib’s south. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which reports the latest development from the field, detected that Russian and Syrian fighter jets and choppers have launched a total of 110 attacks from the air. Some 26 of these barrel bombs were dropped by Syrian helicopters.
According to Agence-France Presse, citing SOHR, Russian Air Forces on Dec. 24 targeted the village of Jubass near the town of Saraqeb in southern Idlib, killing eight civilians, five of them being children, who were sheltering in a school.
Regarding the course of the operation, the regime forces are very close to the city of Maarat al-Numan on the M-5 highway on the north-south axis connecting Aleppo to the capital Damascus in the south. As this article was being penned in the afternoon of Dec. 24, the Assad army has reached nearly 4 kilometers of the city’s outer boundaries.
It will not be surprising for the Assad army and Russia to head to Saraqeb, located some 30 kilometers north of Maarat al-Numan, as the next target. The importance of Saraqeb is that it holds the strategic junction where the M-5 highway from Aleppo curves to the west and heads for Latakia from the M-4 highway. If the regime captures Saraqeb, it will take control of the two main arteries in Idlib. Thus, it will achieve critical and strategic leverage to drive the HTS, which established dominance in the Idlib area, to the north, towards the Turkish border.
All these developments vitally interest Turkey. The first reason for that is the fact that a new migration influx towards the north has already been triggered. The first reason is that a new wave of migration to the north has already been triggered. According to reports, since last Thursday, the number of people who have headed towards the northern and western borders from the operation area in the south, has increased to over 100,000.
Such an important matter determines the fate of the TSK’s observation posts in Idlib. If Assad’s army captures Maarat al-Numan, the position area the TSK has established, without official declaration, in Maar Hitat, from 10 kilometers south of the city, will be left in a tough spot.
Likewise, if Saraqeb falls in the coming period, the situation of TSK’s seventh observation post in Tell Touqan will not be different.
In sum, if this trend continues, the number of TSK observation posts that are surrounded by Assad’s army may increase. This possibility will create a troubling situation for Ankara.
It is also inevitable for such a situation to prompt Turkey to direct or indirect discussions with Russia and the Assad regime.