The Recovery of Idlib Under the Syrian Government: Still Too Early to Achieve? 1/2

The outcome of the Astana 12 meeting in Nour Sultan in Kazakhstan was generally described as positive by the leading countries concerned. However, little was achieved towards the return of the northern Syrian city of Idlib to the control of the central government in Damascus. The constitutional committee (the various parties in Astana) widely discussed and exchanged ideas regarding the legal authority and rights of the President, mainly his power as a decision-maker and his control over the intelligence and security services. Nevertheless, Idlib is waiting for the return of an equilibrium of power among the leading players in the Middle East- and above all the slow recovery of warmer relations between Damascus and Ankara. It is most unlikely that Russia and the Syrian Army will engage in a significant battle to recover Idlib in the next month even if the Russian Air Force is currently destroying the first line of defence of the jihadists along the demarcation line and is creating a larger safety parameter to prevent any bombing of its military base in Hmeymeem.

Of all the leading players in the Levant, Moscow, Tehran and Damascus understand the importance, in the near and medium future, of the Turkish role. Indeed, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is standing between the two opposing superpower countries (Russia and the US) in the Middle East, both present with forces on the ground in Syria. He will have to choose between the economic benefit he is getting from opposing the US camp and his position as a NATO member and its relationship with the US. President Erdogan is aware of the consequences of US enmity if he joins the Russian camp. However, he is also aware that Russia and Iran have become strong long-standing forces, fully present in Syria and capable of boosting Turkey’s economy far more than the US can. This fact serves the interests of President Bashar al-Assad and Syria in the long term, and friendly dialogue between Ankara and Damascus will surely take place sooner or later.

Middle Eastern conflicts are complicated and intertwined, but the US administration’s policy towards Syria is, unfortunately, reducing the possibility for any players to plan, let alone predict the next step and direction in which President Trump is heading. US officials acknowledge that Idlib is under the control of al-Qaeda but paradoxically insist on preventing the elite of the Syrian army and its allies – deployed around the city and its rural area – from recovering it and eliminating the jihadists.

President Trump contradicted himself, not for the first time, concerning his plans towards Syria (as on many other political issues and stands around the globe), when he described it as a “country of sand and death”. He has repeatedly expressed his wish to pull out his forces from the Levant. However, he has reversed his plans by keeping hundreds of troops in Syria with no withdrawal schedule- and he doesn’t want the Syrian Army to free the northern part of the country, even that part under jihadist control.

The Syrian forces deployed around Idlib are limiting their activity to defending the already liberated areas. They are regularly suffering losses (200 soldiers and officers killed since the Russian-Turkish deal) inflicted by the hit-and-run attacks of al-Qaeda and the sporadic bombing of Aleppo. Russian and Syrian forces have harshly hit back with the intensive bombing of jihadist-controlled areas following every violation (rockets were launched in the direction of the Russian military base in Hmeymeem and against the Syrian electricity infrastructure on the coast). Many villages and a strategic location (Qal’at al-Madiq) were liberated by the Syrian army in the last days.

These jihadists of al-Qaeda and militants from Turkmenistan are not being restrained by the Turkish forces deployed in the area. They are not being forced to respect what was supposed to be the Turkish-Russian “demarcation line” along zone one of the de-escalation area, drawn and agreed to last year. Ankara’s troops deployed in the area have failed to withstand violations against their side, faced with the overwhelming force of the jihadists.

For this reason, President Erdogan is judged to be incapable of controlling al-Qaeda. The group has rejected Turkey’s proposal to change its name and integrate within other “rebel groups”. This failure puts Erdogan in an uncomfortable position, incapable of meeting his commitment to the deal signed with Russia, and failing to control Idlib.

By Elijah J. Magnier
Source: Elijah J. Magnier

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