Operation Spring Shield
Idlib, one of the four de-escalation areas designated at the 4th Astana Meeting held on 4-5 May 2017, remains as the last one after the regime took control of Eastern Ghouta, Northern Homs and Daraa-Qunaitra in 2018. President Erdogan and the President of the RF met in Sochi on 17 September 2018 to discuss the situation in the Idlib De-Escalation Area. As a result, the "Memorandum on Stabilization of the Situation in the Idlib De-escalation Area" was signed between two countries. Iran, the third Astana guarantor, later announced its support to the Memorandum. Maintaining compliance with the Memorandum is critical to prevent escalation on the ground, a wave of irregular migration and humanitarian crisis as well as for the sustainability of the political process.
Regime elements have increased their attacks on Idlib since May 2019 under the pretext of combating terrorism. Turkey emphasizes to the regime’s guarantors its deep concern regarding the regime's targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure, as well as the risks those pose to Turkey. Turkey’s expectation is the establishment of calm on the ground by fully implementing all agreements on Idlib, first and foremost the Memorandum of 17 September 2018.
Turkey bet on cooperation with Russia in Syria. It lost this bet. The situation in Idlib escalated after the February 27 terrorists from the Khayyat Tahrir al-Sham group launched a large-scale attack on the positions of the Syrian army.
Some 33 Turkish soldiers were killed as a result of an airstrike in the Syrian province of Idlib, Rahmi Dogan, the governor of the Hatay province, located close to the Turkish border with Syria, said 27 February 2020. The Associated Press called the Thursday attack "the largest death toll for Turkey in a single day since it first intervened in Syria in 2016," and "a major escalation in a conflict between Turkish and Russia-backed Syrian forces." The BBC reports "The air strike came after the opposition retook the key town of Saraqeb, north-east of Balyun."
On 28 Febuary 2020, Turkey began Operation Spring Shield against regime. Operation Spring Shield is already yielding results according to Defence Minister Hulusi Akar. He said since the operation began on February 28, 1 UAV, 8 helicopters, 103 tanks, 72 guns/howitzers/CNRA, 3 air defence systems and 2,212 regime soldiers have already been eliminated. "We have no intention to confront Russia but we want to stop the Assad regime's massacre of civilians. Our target is only regime forces and elements attacking our troops," he added. Al-Hawwash, where these air strikes occurred on 27 February 2020, is only 40km away from Russia's Khmeimim Airbase. There isn't much buffer, and the proximity meant Russia would feel more threatened by Turkish UAVs overhead.
The Russian Ministry of Defence later stated that the troops were among armed militants, who had been planning to launch a military offensive against the Syrian Army in the area. According to presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov, members of the Russian Security Council are extremely concerned about the “sharp escalation of the situation” in northern Syria, which was led by increasing terrorist attacks against government forces. Participants in the meeting noted that the Turkish military in Idlib perished exclusively outside observation posts, a Kremlin spokesman said.
The killing of 33 Turkish soldiers in an airstrike conducted by the Russia-backed Assad regime gave Ankara another reason to suspect Moscow's intentions toward Turkey. The attack had thrown a spanner in almost all the diplomatic successes the two sides had achieved. “The Russian Federation has shown its nefarious and ominous face, which has been obvious for us, exposing its brewing hidden enmity toward Turkey,” said Devlet Bahceli, the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) leader, who is an ally of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
In response to the attack, Syrian government targets “have come and will continue to come under fire from the air and ground," said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan's communications director, Fahrettin Altun. Turkey says it responded with drone and artillery attacks, state-run Anadolu Agency news reports today. According to Turkey's Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, "Turkish forces destroyed five Syrian regime choppers, 23 tanks, 10 armored vehicles, 23 howitzers, five ammunition trucks, a SA-17, a SA-22 air defense system as well as three ammunition depots, two equipment depots, a headquarter[s] and 309 regime troops." The actual number of regime forces killed is 16, Agence France-Presse reports from Istanbul. (And Turkey shut off much of the country's internet after news of the 33 surfaced.
The NATO Council met at Turkey’s request to consult under Article 4 of NATO’s founding Washington Treaty on the situation in Syria. The Allies offered “their deepest condolences” to Turkey and expressed solidarity, but stopped short from taking any more practical measures after the emergency meeting. The United States said that "we stand by our NATO ally Turkey" and demanded that Syria and Russia end their "despicable" offensive in Idlib. "We are looking at options on how we can best support Turkey in this crisis," a State Department spokeswoman said. Turkish media reported that hundreds of migrants were flocking to Turkey's borders with Greece and Bulgaria, after a senior official was quoted as saying Ankara had decided “not to stop Syrian refugees from reaching Europe.”
It is unclear if Article 5 extends to NATO allies when they have effectively invaded a foreign entity. The state defending itself in this specific set of facts is Syria – not Turkey. So Ankara can’t call on NATO support under Article 5, which is self-protection, because they’re not being attacked, they’re in Syrian territory. That being said, Ankara has found a way to ensure that European nations do not flat-out ignore the situation. Just recently, Turkey reportedly opened up the Idlib border to allow an influx of Syrian refugees to flee to Europe, which will surely magnify regional tensions to a significant extent. Moscow has responded to the situation by highlighting Ankara’s relationship with the various jihadist entities in Syria. According to Russia’s Defense Ministry, the airstrike was carried out when the Syrian Army was repelling an offensive by Syria’s official al-Qaeda offshoot, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, inside the Idlib “de-escalation zone.”
On 01 March 2020 Turkish drone strikes in Syria's Idlib province killed 19 regime soldiers, a war monitor reported, as tensions soared between Damascus and Ankara. The 19 died in strikes on a military convoy in the Jabal al Zawiya area and a base near Maaret al Numan city, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The report came hours after Turkey shot down two Syrian regime warplanes, in an escalating offensive against the Damascus regime in the country's northwestern province of Idlib.
This operation took the regime planners and their allies by surprise. They probably estimated that the Turkish leadership would think twice, shy away from further human losses, and potentially opt for disengagement from Idlib. However, the Turkish military response destroyed scores of Syrian military assets, including at least three fighter jets (comprising two Sukhoi SU-34 and one L-39), five helicopters, 100 tanks, howitzers, and radar installations, while neutralising hundreds of troops. It dealt a serious blow to the military capabilities of the Syrian army and its surrogates.
While many pundits have touched upon the political and strategic ramifications of such developments, it is equally important to explore the military significance of the past week’s events, some of which will outlast the current conflict in Syria. It should be stated that this is the first time since 1982 that the Assad regime confronted this sort of sustained and significant challenge from a superior foe. This week, the intensity of the military onslaught against the Assad army brought the latter to an operational breaking point.
Over the course of a week, from February 27 through March 5, Syria’s Idlib province transitioned from being ground zero for a war between the Syrian army and allied forces, and heavily armed groups opposed to the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad, into a geopolitical powder keg that threatened to pull the Turkish and Russian militaries into direct conflict. One of the major reasons for the Turkish failure was the fact that Russia controlled the air space over Idlib, denying the Turks the use of aircraft, helicopters and (except for a single 48-hour period) drones, while apparently using their own aircraft, together with the Syrian Air Force, to pummel both the Turkish military and their allied anti-Assad forces.
After five days of Turkey's Spring Shield military operation in Syria's northwestern Idlib province, regime forces paid a punishing price. Turkey's intervention has also allowed Syrian opposition forces to take up the offensive. Turkey neutralized Syrian regime's 2 aircraft, 2 drones, 8 choppers, 135 tanks, 5 air-defense systems, 2,557 elements so of 02 March 2020. This operation soon fizzled; not only was the Turkish advance halted in its tracks, but the Syrian Army, supported by Hezbollah and pro-Iranian militias, were able to recapture much of the territory lost in the earlier fighting.
A new agreement with Russia on 05 March 2020 dispelled the specter of a major conflict arising from the recent escalation of tensions in Syria's Idlib. A heated standoff between the Syrian Army and Turkey seems to have been avoided. This was all thanks to the diplomatic efforts of Moscow and Ankara, which led to a new agreement on the troubled province following nearly six hours of negotiations. The conflict had threatened to spiral out of control at any minute, dragging both adversaries – as well as Syria's allies in Moscow and possibly even Turkey's NATO partners – into an all-out war.
The deal appears to do even more than prevent a war, since pretty much every side involved in the latest flare-up achieved most of its goals, short-term ones, at least. For Moscow, averting the disaster was a victory in itself. Russia's primary goal was to put an end to the fighting and removing a threat of a major war that could break out between Damascus and Ankara, in which Russia could end up being involved.
Turkey's commitment to fighting terrorists in Syria also plays into Moscow's hands since Ankara agrees to something that Russia has been calling for all along. The mere fact of such support imposes certain obligations on the Turkish side. Turkey also got what it wants: a northern Idlib buffer zone, where it can deal with internally displaced persons and refugees to make sure they're not crossing into its territory.
The new ceasefire meant that the Syrian Army would not continue its offensive against the Turkish-backed militants, potentially pushing them away to the Turkish territory as well and Ankara does not need to intervene. Damascus, which was not part of the talks in Moscow, still had its interests preserved. The Syrian Army retained control over the territories it seized during the latest offensive, including the strategic M5 highway connecting the Syrian capital to the nation's second most populous city of Aleppo.
Another strategic road – the M4 highway linking Aleppo to the coastal province of Latakia – would now be patrolled by Russian and Turkish forces, providing a way for its reopening as well. Reopening the M4 and M5 was basically envisioned by the 2018 agreement [between Moscow and Ankara], but it never happened, so now Russia finally pushed Turkey to accept that.
The M4 highway would now be buffered by a 12-kilometer security zone (Six kilometers on each side), and will be jointly patrolled by Turkey and Russia, guaranteeing secure passage for commercial vehicle traffic. These patrols would begin on March 15, which meant the Turks had ten days to oversee the evacuation of anti-Assad forces from this corridor – in effect, pushing them back north of the M4 highway, which was the goal of the Syrian offensive to begin with.
The biggest threat in the region – the terrorist groups, including an Al-Qaeda offshoot known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, former Al Nusra Front, are still not dealt with. And they could try and use the ceasefire to their own advantage. The most difficult aspect of this deal is that we didn't hear how exactly Turkey and Russia will deal with… terrorists who are based in Idlib. Turkey might end up being tasked with separating the extremists from the "moderate" militants and pushing them out of its zone of control – something Ankara previously failed to do, prompting the Syrian Army's offensive. It was still unclear how Turks would take part in the fight against terrorists.
Turkey controls quite a number of what it calls "buffer zones" on Syrian territory, including those east of the Euphrates and north of the Aleppo province. Ankara has shown no willingness to give up control over them just yet. However, since Damascus plans to eventually regain control over all Syrian territories, these issues will ultimately have to be resolved, either bilaterally [between Moscow and Ankara] or even between Turkey and the Syrian government.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|