May 20 2019

Syrian offensive in Idlib could further tensions with Turkey

The Syrian government offensive in Idlib province is creating new refugees and likely exacerbating tensions with Turkey, Media Line reported on Sunday.

After months of calm, Syria’s northwest province of Idlib has since April 30 been the scene of widening military offensive by the government of Bashar al-Assad, looking to gain control of the last rebel-held enclave with support from Russian air strikes.

Much of Idlib is under the control of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaida affiliate, and Russia and Syria insist their offensive is a counter-terrorist action.

The latest fighting ended a ceasefire negotiated by Russia and Turkey last September, though the Russian Defence Ministry on Sunday said that Syrian forces halted their fire this weekend.

The United Nations said the airstrikes and bombardments have killed dozens of civilians and that the assault has forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee to safer areas. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has said the fighting is also forcing rebels to flee northward.

Turkey, which already hosts some 4 million refugees, including 3.6 million Syrians, fears a further spill-over in the event of an all-out assault on Idlib, according to Media Line.

“Turkey maintains – contrary to what the Russians and Syrian regime are saying – that most of the places that have been bombed either by the regime or by the Russians have involved civilian infrastructure such as hospitals, clinics and education facilities,” Istanbul-based political analyst Ali Mustafa told Media Line.

For its part, Ankara insists that it is going to continue to help Syrian opposition groups. “Turkey maintains it will continue to support al legitimate opposition groups that are fighting the Syrian regime and fighting the Russians,” Mustafa said.

The Syrian and Russian offensive could soon come face to face with Turkish troops in northern Syria, where Ankara has maintained an armed military presence since August 2016, although this would hinge entirely on Moscow, he said.

“Turkey doesn’t deal directly with the Syrian regime, but it does deal directly with Russia, and it needs guarantees from Russia that its interests and positions [inside Syria] will be preserved. The Syrian regime says the area is Syrian sovereign territory, and whoever is present in this territory, we will go after,” according to Mustafa.

Nizar Abdel Kader, a retired Lebanese general, said any military confrontation between Damascus and Ankara would be limited.

“In order to keep Turkey satisfied, its military presence must not be harmed in areas under its influence inside Syria close to the border,” he said, referring to Ankara’s determination to block the Syrian-Kurdish militia from solidifying its hold there.

Some reports behind the scenes suggest that Turkey has agreed to let parts of Idlib Province fall under Syrian government control in exchange for Turkish troops being allowed to take control of Syrian Kurdish militia-held areas, said Media Line.