Moving towards the most dangerous phase in Syria

Moving towards the most dangerous phase in Syria

As of last week, the situation in Idlib’s field was showing a dangerous and escalating trend, as Turkey, on the one side, and the [Syrian leader Bashar al-] Assad-Russia duo, on the other, gaining leverage against each other with the new positions they have taken up. 

Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) was establishing a new observation post at the military airport in Taftanaz, with its shipment to the location, about 10 kilometers north of Saraqib.

Unfortunately, this dangerous escalation could not be brought under control despite talks with Russia during the weekend and even gained a stronger momentum, leading to a sorrowful incident: The martyrdom of our five soldiers, who were targeted by an artillery fire launched by Assad’s army.

The flow of event carries a very fragile potential which can pave the way for multi-actor and more widespread clashes in Idlib, with the TSK and its backed armed opposition groups on one side, and the Assad army, Iran-backed militias and Russian air forces on the other, if no agreement is reached in talks with Russia regarding the cessation of the crisis.

How did we get here?

Turkey’s Idlib move

One of the main factors that played an important role in the heightening of tensions was the steps the Assad army took to take back the rebel-held M-5 highway, which connects Syria’s largest economic center Aleppo to the capital Damascus.

This gradual operation that the regime has been carrying out with the support of heavy bombardment of Russian and Syrian warplanes also triggered a migration influx, with about 400,000 people having fled towards the north, the Turkish border.

The situation gained a critical dimension as the regime’s army approached the Saraqib town on the way towards the north over the M-5 highway. Because Saraqib is located in an extremely strategic location where the M-5 highway intersects the M-4 highway, connecting Aleppo to Latakia, thus, the Mediterranean.

As the wave of migration continued at full speed, Turkey made a critical move on the field. The TSK established four different “control posts” over Saraqib’s four highways, which ravel out to all four directions, in a bid to set back the regime’s advance towards the north.

Assad’s army’s artillery attack on Feb. 3, which martyred eight of our citizens - seven soldiers and one civilian - targeted the control post at the east of Saraqib.

Meanwhile, Turkey kicked off a simultaneous and rare-to-see large military shipment to Idlib, in order to reinforce its current 12 observation posts and to provide “position areas.”

Observation posts within regime territory

Assad’s army besieged Saraqib on Feb. 6 evening regardless of the TSK’s control posts. The regime also took Saraqib under control by entering the town via side roads. Under the circumstances, the four control points the TSK had set up in Saraqib were left within regime territory.

The regime systematically continued its advance towards the north from the M-5 highway, over the weekend. It also gradually closed the 40-kilometer distance from Saraqib to Aleppo, to a large extent. As I was penning this column on Feb. 10 night, it had a seven-kilometer distance to completely take the M-5 highway under control.

But the regime did not only advance towards the north, but also simultaneously spread out towards west. Its advance towards the west left one more of Turkey’s observation posts within regime territory. Thus, after the TSK’s ninth, eighth and seventh observation points in Morek, Al-Surman and Tell Touqanin east of Saraqib, respectively, the sixth observation point in Tal al-Eis, some 20 kilometers northeast of Saraqib, were also left within regime territory.

The situation of the outpost the TSK established in Maar Hattat, south of Ma’arrat al-Nu’man over the M-5 highway, and the four control posts in Saraqib is no different. If the regime reaches Aleppo from the M-5 highway, then the TSK’s fifth observation post in Al-Rashidin, at the northmost, will probably be in a similar situation.

New strategic line drawn on field

All in all, almost all of the military units of the TSK, at multifarious points in the east of Idlib, have been left within territory controlled by the regime.

In particular, the fortified observation points, which have military base statuses at the small scale, have taken a combatant stance as they heavily retaliate against recent regime attacks, with martyrs. In any case, a conflict phase is being entered with the heightened tensions between Assad’s army and the TSK’s observation posts. In this context, there are serious security risks. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which is known with its reliable reports from the field, said that the number of military vehicles and semi-trailer trucks arriving in Idlib reached 1,300 since Feb. 2. In the same report, the observatory said some 5,000 Turkish soldiers arrived in Idlib along with the shipment.

Another important development from the field is the TSK’s establishment of a strategic line, which will run parallel to the M-5 highway following a way from southwest to the northwest of Idlib, with the provided position areas.

When we look at the activities on the field, it can be thought that the outposts which are being established in Qmenas, at the south of Idlib city center, Taftanaz, at the north - which was attacked on Feb. 10 - and Maarat al-Naasan in the north primarily aim to suppress the regime’s further expansion to the west.

This strategic line that is being drawn can also be seen as a move towards determining the borders of the “safe zone,” which is designed to settle the migrants coming from Idlib’s south to the north.