BY ELIJAH J. MAGNIER
A significant development took place in Syria on Friday. A Russian attack on a Turkish convoy in Idlib in north-west Syria killed 36 Turkish soldiers and officers. In retaliation, Turkey launched an unprecedented armed drone attack that lasted several hours and resulted in the killing and wounding of over 150 Syrian officers and soldiers and their allies of Hezbollah and the Fatimiy’oun. The Turkish drones destroyed dozens of tanks and rocket launchers deployed by the Syrian Army along the front line. Russia ceased air support for Syria and its allies demanded from Russia an explanation for the lack of coordination of its unilateral stoppage of air support, allowing the Turkish drones to kill so many Syrian Army and allied forces. What happened, why, and what will be the consequences?
In October 2018, Turkey and Russia signed an agreement in Astana to establish a de-confliction zone along the Damascus-Aleppo (M5) and Aleppo-Latakia (M4) highways. It was agreed that all belligerents would withdraw and render the roads accessible to civilian traffic. Moreover, it was decided to end the presence of all jihadists, including the Tajik, Turkistan, Uighur and all other foreign fighters present in Idlib alongside Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (former ISIS, former al-Qaeda in Syria), Hurras al-Din (al-Qaeda in Syria), and Ahrar al-Sham with their foreign fighters and all “non-moderate” rebels. Last year, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham took full control of Idlib and its rural area under the watchful eyes of Turkey.
Over a year later, the Turkish commitment to end the presence of jihadists and to open the M5 and M4 had not been respected. The Syrian Army and its allies, along with Russia, agreed to impose the Astana agreement by force. In a few weeks, the jihadists defence line crumbled under heavy Russian bombing. According to field commanders, the jihadists left fewer than 100 men in every village, who withdrew under the heavy bombing and preferred to leave rather than be surrounded by the Syrian Army and their fast advance.
Turkey, according to the military commanders in Syria, saw the withdrawal of jihadists and decided to move thousands of troops into Syria to lead a counter-attack against the Syrian Army and its allies. This action made it impossible for Russia to distinguish between jihadists and the Turkish Army. Moreover, Turkey refrained from informing Russia – as it had agreed to according to the deconfliction agreement between Russia and Turkey – about the position of its regular forces. This was when Russia bombed a convoy killing 36 Turkish officers along with 17 jihadists who were present together with the Turkish Army.
According to decision-maker sources in Syria, the Russian Air Force was not aware of the presence of the Turkish convoy when it was almost decimated in Idlib. The Turkish command has supplied Turkish vehicles and deployed thousands of Turkish soldiers with the jihadists. “It almost appears that Turkish President Recep Tayyeb Erdogan wanted this high number of Turkish casualties to stop the successful and rapid attack of the Syria army on Idlib front, and to curtail the fast withdrawal of jihadists.”
According to the sources, Russia was surprised by the number of Turkish soldiers killed and declared a unilateral ceasefire to calm down the front and de-escalate. Moscow ordered its military operational room in Syria to stop the military push and halt the attack on rural Idlib. Engaging in a war against Turkey is not part of President Putin’s plans in Syria. Russia thought it the right time to quieten the front and allow Erdogan to lick his wounds.
This Russian wishful thinking did not correspond to Turkish intentions and plans in Syria. Turkey moved its military command and control base on the borders with Syria to direct attacks against the Syrian Army and its allies. Turkish armed drones mounted an unprecedented organised drone attack lasting several hours, destroying the entire Syrian defence line on the M5 and M4 and undermining the effectiveness of the Syrian Army, equipped and trained by Russia. Furthermore, Iran had informed Turkey of the presence of its forces and allied forces along the Syrian Army, and asked Turkey to stop the attack to avoid casualties. Turkey, which maintains over 2000 officers and soldiers in 14 observation locations that are today under Syrian Army control, ignored the Iranian request and bombed Iranian HQ and that of its allies, including a military field hospital killing 30 (9 Hezbollah and 21 Fatimiyoun) and tens of the Syrian army officers. The Turkish attack wounded more than 150 soldiers of the Syrian Army and their allies.
It was now clear that Russia, Iran and its allies had misunderstood President Erdogan: Turkey is in the battle of Idlib to defend what Erdogan considers Turkish territory (Idlib). That is the meaning of the Turkish message, based on the behaviour and deployment of the Turkish Army along with the jihadists. Damascus and its allies consider that Russia made a mistake in not preventing the Turkish drones from attacking Syrian-controlled territory in Idlib. Moreover, Russia made another grave mistake in not warning its allies that the political leadership in Moscow had declared a one-sided ceasefire, exposing partners in the battlefield and denying them air cover.
This is not the first time Russia has stopped a battle in the middle of its course in Syria. It happened before at al-Ghouta, east Aleppo, el-Eiss, al-Badiya and Deir-ezzour. It was Russia who asked the Syrian Army and its allies to prepare for the M5 and M4 battle. Militarily speaking, such an attack cannot be halted unless a ceasefire is agreed to on all fronts by all parties. The unilateral ceasefire was a severe mistake because Russia neither anticipated the Turkish reaction nor did it allow the Syrian Army and its allies to equip themselves with air defence systems. Moreover, while Turkey was bombing the Syrian Army and its allies for several hours, it took many hours for Russian commanders to convince Moscow to intervene and ask Turkey to stop the bombing.
The military command of Syria and its allies believe that Turkey could now feel encouraged to repeat such an attack by Russian hesitation to stand against it. Thus Syria, Iran and allies have decided to secure air coverage for their forces spread over Idlib and to make sure they have independent protection even if Russia were to promise – according to the source – to lead a future attack and recover total air control.
It is understandable that Russia is not in Syria to trigger a war against NATO member Turkey. However, NATO is not in a position to support Turkey because Turkey is occupying Syrian soil. Nevertheless, the war in Syria has shown how little the rule of law is respected by the West. A possible US intervention is not excluded with the goal of spoiling Russia, Iran and Syria’s victory and their plans to liberate the Levant from jihadists and to unite the country. Possible US intervention is a source of concern to Russia and Iran, particularly when President Erdogan keeps asking for US direct intervention, a 30 km no-fly-zone, a buffer zone along the borders with Syria, US Patriot interception missiles to confront the Russian air force, and a protection for internally displaced Syrian refugees (at the same time as he organises their departure to Europe).
Moscow maintains good commercial and energy ties with Turkey, and President Putin is not in Syria to start a new war with Syria’s enemies Turkey, the US and Israel, notwithstanding the importance of the Levant for Russia’s air force (Hmeymeem airbase) and navy (Tartous naval base).
The options are limited: either Russia agrees to support the preparation of the inevitable Syrian counter-attack in the coming days and before a Putin-Erdogan summit, or the situation in Idlib will hibernate and remain static until jihadists attack Aleppo again in the next 6-7 months.