Turkey makes gains in northern Syria while al-Assad makes gains in the south
Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” is being carried out at a time when the Bashar al-Assad regime, supported by the Russian military, is making significant gains in the Idlib region, which is the gateway to the east and southeast of Aleppo.
To assess how this state of affairs came about it is important to look at significant developments that occurred at the start of November 2017 along the line that separated rebel-controlled areas and regime-controlled areas in the east. It was November when regime forces launched its ongoing attack against the Syrian rebels in Idlib.
Let’s recall how the map looked at the start of November: The regime-controlled town of Khanasir, 50 kilometers south of Aleppo, was on the frontier of opposition-controlled areas in the east, while the regime-controlled town of Rabia was on the frontier of opposition-controlled areas in the west. The distance between the two towns is about 130 kilometers, meaning that the area under opposition control was as wide as 130 kilometers from east to west.
The al-Assad regime launched an attack in early November, capturing a number of towns and villages one by one in the west while also making strong gains in the north. As a result of those offenses, the opposition forces were left with a stretch of land considerably smaller than the 130 kilometers long area it previously held.
The distance between Rabia in the west and the current position of the regime forces in the east is now 80 kilometers. Regime forces have advanced some 50 kilometers into the opposition-controlled area in the space of three months. Similarly, in the south a large swath of land stretching from the southwest of Hama to Idlib was under rebel control in November, but through its military incursion the regime forces have been able to cut through this area
The town of Khanasir is now well within the regime-controlled area. The most significant success of the regime forces was the capture of the Abu Ad Duhur airbase. The regime forces launched an attack on the airbase on Jan. 9 and the assault ended on Jan. 11 when all al-Nusra elements withdrew totally from the facility.
With the capture of this strategic target, the regime forces came within 45 kilometers of Idlib. This was an important outcome of this offensive.
The fall of the airbase happened shortly before Turkey launched “Operation Olive Branch” in the northern district of Afrin. It is important to note that the regime forces continued to make gains in Idlib against opposition forces even after the Turkish military and the Free Syrian Army entered Afrin
The crucial point to note is that the al-Assad regime has been making steady and systematic gains in Idlib at a time when the international community’s attention has been turned to Turkey’s operation in Afrin and crises around that operation dominate the agenda. Just on Feb. 1 regime forces carried out an aerial attack on the area north of the Abu Ad Duhur airbase.
Even if Turkey’s Afrin operation has its own aims and intentions, one inevitable unintended consequence of it is that the Syrian regime is facing much less pressure now. What’s more, the armed opposition groups around Idlib have apparently moved some of their forces to Afrin, further weakening the opposition in Idlib
It looks unlikely that talks between Turkey, Russia and Iran on “de-escalation zones” will prevent the regime forces from making further gains on the ground.
This situation has produced a strange paradox. While the Turkish military and the Free Syrian Army are gaining ground against the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin, al-Assad - who since the beginning of the war Turkey has considered an adversary - has been gaining strength by making advances in Idlib.
That is the point we have now reached in Syria.