Northern Hama for Tel Rifaat: Is the Idlib Ground Offensive a Quid Pro Quo Between Turkey and Russia? 

Published May 15th, 2019 - 11:48 GMT
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Rockets fly as Syrian regime forces storm rebel-held territory in northern Hama in May, 2019 (AFP/FILE)

A Syrian regime ground offensive in Idlib, one that’s been anticipated for years and was halted last year thanks to a last-ditch deal, is currently underway.

After months of escalating airstrike campaigns and a particularly intense period of bombing in early May, regime troops stormed areas southwest of Idlib, focusing their efforts near the strategic town of Qalaat al-Madiq. A rebel counterattack soon followed, which reportedly killed dozens of regime troops, but the attack was repelled soon thereafter.

As of press time, the regime is making steady advances north of Qalaat al-Madiq and the neighboring town of Kafr Nabudah. 

Much of the media’s attention has stayed on the particularly brutal tactics involved in the air campaign: Russian warplanes have seemingly sought to destroy every hospital in the area near the offensive, taking out at least 18 since April 28.

Beyond the brutality and fear that this offensive may foreshadow and all-out assault on northwestern Syria, a quiet diplomatic arrangement may be coming into view.

Turkey, whose military polices the frontlines, has stayed relatively quiet about the offensive.

On May 5, only one day before the assault began, Turkish and Russian officials met to discuss the fate of the Kurdish-held town of Tel Rifaat. Turkey has been looking to capture Tel Rifaat from the Kurdish forces, whom Turkey views as terrorists, since early 2018.

This new Idlib offensive may be understood as a land-trade: Turkey allows the Syrian regime to capture a strategic section of southern Idlib, and in exchange, Syria and Russia allow Turkey to take Tel Rifaat.

Such a trade would allow the Syrian regime to mark gains towards re-capturing the last rebel stronghold, give Russian forces stationed around Latakia some breathing room from rebel activity and register a win for Turkey’s military campaign against Syrian Kurds.


Details on the Idlib Offensive

Smoke billows from an opposition-held Syrian town targeted by airstrikes in May, 2019 (AFP/FILE)

In Sept 2018, a massive regime assault on Idlib was narrowly avoided by a last-ditch deal struck by Turkey and Russia.

The so-called ‘demilitarization deal’ called on Turkey to paritally disarm and relocate jihadi groups from the frontlines—a task Turkey has found difficult to impossible. Since the deal’s ratification, Turkish military observation points have been set up across the region, but they haven’t staved off the constant bombings by Russian warplanes.

Bombings are a daily occurance, and hundreds have died from airstrikes since the demilitarization deal was signed in Sep 2018.

In March, Ansar al-Tawhid and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) launched separate, limited offensives against regime forces in the mountainous region of Latakia. 

In late April, the bombing intensified and began to focus on civilian targets like hospitals. According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), 18 health facilities have been struck since April 28. That includes two hospitals that were struck twice.

Then on May 6, regime and loyalist forces began a ground operation in northern Hama, re-taking several key villages before being temporarily pinned back by an opposition counter-attack.

Rebel sources say the believe the offensive’s goal is to capture two strategic highways to Aleppo that run through rebel territory. According to Reuters, both Russia and Turkey had previously agreed that these highways to Aleppo should be opened.

The ground assault is ongoing, and comes in spite of the fact that Turkey maintains a military presence near the areas affected by the offensive.

So far, Turkey has barely responded to the offensive itself. Though Turkey’s President Recep Erdogan recently accused Syria of "seeking to sabotage" its burgeoning relationship with Russia by launching the offensive, thus undermining the demilitarization deal. Turkish forces on the ground appear unbothered by the assault. 

Ahmed Subhi, an internally displaced person from northern Hama, explained that Turkish military observation points have not been helping to protect civilians; they’ve merely been observing and documenting the shelling.


A Blitzkrieg or a Land-Trade? 

Two anonymous senior diplomats said they believe Turkey is allowing the regime to expand its reach into Idlib in exchange for clearance to take Tel Rifaat.

Syrian regime forces enter previously rebel-held town in northern Hama in May 2019 (AFP/FILE)

It is unclear whether the current regime assault will expand towards greater portions of Idlib, but there is reason to believe it is part of a deal secretly forged by Russia and Turkey.

While Russia and the Syrian regime have sought to intensify pressure on rebels and Turkey in Idlib, Turkey has ramped up its efforts to seize areas of northern Syria currently under Kurdish control.

Turkey has launched several major offensives against Kurdish militias in northern Syria; mostly notably Operation Euphrates Shield (2016-2017) and Operation Olive Branch (2018). In those operations, Turkey took most of th e Kurdish-held land west of the Euphrates River, but the Kurds remain in control of Tel Rifaat thanks to protection provided by the Syrian regime.

Two anonymous senior diplomats said they believe Turkey is allowing the regime to expand its reach into Idlib in exchange for clearance to take Tel Rifaat. “There are suggestions of an arrangement between Russia and Turkey and the regime which would eat into the buffer zone by up to 25 miles in exchange for the Turks being able to take Tel Rifaat,” one of the diplomats said.

The assertion is largely corroborated by public statements by Turkish officials. In a joint Turkish-Russian-Iranian statement issued after an April 25-26 meeting, all sides  “reaffirmed the determination to continue cooperation” in eliminate jihadi groups operation in Idlib, including HTS, which controls the majority of the region.

In early May, before the regime offensive officially began, Turkey’s Vice President Fuat Oktay responded to Kurdish militia attacks coming from Tel Rifaat and warned, “The agreement was for us to stop there (Tel Rifaat), but if these attacks continue, this may take a different shape. We are discussing this with Russia.”

This would not be the first time Russia and Turkey coordinated a land-grab in the Syrian civil war.

“It is a trade of sorts, in which Afrin is being exchanged for Abou al-Duhour and the eastern side of the Hijaz railway in Aleppo governorate.”

Before Turkey launched its own operation to capture Afrin from Kurdish militias, Turkish and Rusisan officials met, and Turkey was given partial permission to fly within Syrian airspace. The permission allowed Turkey to begin reconnaissance near Afrin and ultimately provide its ground troops with ample air support during the opersion.

On the eve of the offensive; two more notable events occurred.

First, Russian troops pulled out of the Afrin region entirely, which the Kurds called a ‘betrayal.’ Second, HTS forces withdrew from Abou al-Duhour, a strategic airbase that was nearly surrounded by regime forces. The airbase was seen as largely impregnable, but regime forces were able to take it without incident after HTS forces left. 

“It is a trade of sorts, in which Afrin is being exchanged for Abou al-Duhour and the eastern side of the Hijaz railway in Aleppo governorate.” Dr. Mohanad Ali Hage, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center, told Al Bawaba at the time.

The trade allowed Turkey to increase its foothold in northern Syria while giving the regime the opportunity to solidify its hold on the Aleppo region.

Turkey’s president Erdogan (left) meets with Russian president Vladimir Putin during G-20 Summit (AFP/FILE)

The trade also indicated that Turkey views its holdings in Syria as bargaining chips to leverage over Russia and Syria: Turkey can decide to cede a part of its holdings in exchange for greater allowance to fight Kurdish militias. On the other side of that equation, the Syrian regime can allow or deny those military operations, and has strategically facilitated then blocked them when it has been strategic to do so.

In the Afrin operation, for example, Syria evidently found it permissible for Turkey to attack as far as the outskirts of Tel Rifaat, but stopped Turksih forces from advancing any further. As this next land-trade looms, it appears that move may have been a way for Syria to preserve some leverage over Turkey. 

As Syrian regime eyes hone into deeper parts of Idlib, and Turkey eyes the Kurdish-controlled city of Manbij east of the Euphrates River, the violence may worsen yet.

Nonetheless, there remains a risk that the diplomatic dealings can collapse as on-the-ground realities spiral out of control. The current regime offensive may reach too far into Idlib, prompting a harsh reaction from Turkey. Or a massive flow of displaced persons seeking refuge in Turkey could also spark a response.

As it stands now, the human costs of the offensive have been grave. In addition to the hundreds that have died from airstrikes since Sep 2018, dozens of fighters have also died since early May. The fact that many of the region’s hospitals are damaged or completely destroyed also means injuries will be more deadly, as people will not be able to address their wounds.

If Turkey is allowed to storm into Tel Rifaat, thousands more will be exposed to violence and a Turkish military that has been accused of violating international law in its Afrin offensive. In that operation, Turkish forces cut off water access to hundreds of thousands of civilians and looted stores and homes from captured cities.

As Syrian regime eyes hone into deeper parts of Idlib, and Turkey eyes the Kurdish-controlled city of Manbij east of the Euphrates River, the violence may worsen yet.

The Syrian war is evolving and the regime has all but won, but the lingering conflict remains deadly for millions of Syrians trapped inside.

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