The battle of Idlib: Russia vs. Turkey?

Turkey’s IHH send 20 trucks of aid to Idlib

Free Syrian Army (FSA) commander, Major İbrahim Majbour spoke to Yeni Şafak about developments following the Tehran summit. The FSA has been organised by Turkey for the purposes of defending specifically the Idlib region, under the umbrella of Jabhat al-Wataniyya lil-Tahrir (National Liberation Front/NLF).

In a dramatic turnaround, the Turkey government decided not to withdraw these elements from the region. This had been planned in order to isolate Hay’at Tahrir el-Sham (HTS), weaken them and encourage substantial sections of the ex al-Qaeda organisation to surrender. By blacklisting HTS, Turkey declared their intension to respond to Russian concerns about threats to their airbase at Khmeimim from units infiltrated by Western intelligence personnel. However, it became clear at the Tehran summit that Putin planned for a comprehensive attack on all fighting forces in the Idlib region.

Seeing that Russia and Iran had begun to flout the principles of the Astana peace process, with a wide ranging air and ground assault, the Turkish government has decided to confront the attacks, and to allow the FSA/NLF to remain to do the same. The fast paced action is now essentially pitting Turkish-backed forces against Russia and Iranian-backed forces.

Majbour pointed out that Russia is redeploying the same tactic it used against Daraa in the southwest, noting that Russia is currently trying to divide Idlib into five different regions through its intensified bombardment aimed at severing all links between them. However, the FSA/NLF has prepared for this, according to Majbour, and has planned a defence strategy based on differences between Idlib and Daraa from the geographic and strategic standpoints.

Furthermore, as mass demonstrations in central Idlib, Taftanaz, Kafranbel and Maaret al-Numan called for a Turkish invasion force to enter Idlib, Majbour says: “We once again saw the true intentions of Russia and Iran during the Tehran summit. Turkey has the strongest hand both on the table and on the ground because it is the only side that wants reconciliation without bloodshed.”

The people of Idlib are behind Turkey. For months, demonstrations have been held in every town and village. The whole world sees Turkey’s intense efforts. Those who want a show of force through bloodshed will realize that they will not actualize their goals.”

We were able to arrest dozens of instigators through the ongoing intelligence efforts of Turkey’s Idlib observation posts and opposition headquarters. There’s a large number of cells attempting to get people to surrender and spread chaos. There are cells that serve not only the PKK and Daesh, but also Russia and Iran. There have been 80 blasts over the past 10 days in Idlib. Simultaneously, the same provocations are ongoing in the axis of Jarabulus, Azaz, Afrin and al-Bab.”

Majbour added that as a mark of respect for Turkey’s diplomatic efforts,  the FSA/NLF had so far not mounted any attacks, noting that as soon as battle breaks out, the opposition forces had the capacity in fact, not only to defend their positions, but to counter-attack and overrun Latakia, Hama and Aleppo.

Clearly, while the Turkish government worked towards a compromise with Russia on sorting out the extremists from the moderate opposition forces in Idlib, plans were afoot all along in the event that Russia would reject that effort and tar all non-régime forces with the same brush, a point that stands out in the statements by Turkish presidential advisor, İbrahim Kalın.

If Majbour sees differences between the Idlib battlefront and all the previous confrontations with the Syrian régime, this is only partly due to the opposition’s determination and the well-laid battle plans that would seem now to enable the coordination of all opposition groups. The main reason for the difference is the fact that Idlib backs directly onto Turkish soil, and now that Turkey feels threatened by a new wave of refugees, it will ensure uninterrupted logistical supplies to opposition forces, for as long as it takes. So, the people of Idlib effectively have what they called for when they called for a Turkish invasion force. No more is necessary.

Iranian hubris at the Tehran conference was in evidence as Rouhani, taking Putin at his word that Russia would help Syrian régime and Iranian militias overrun Idlib, stated blandly that the next step was to remove American forces from Eastern Syria. The Syrian régime is threadbare and their Iranian backers will not be able to deal with organised resistance. How long will it take Putin to realise that he has made a mistake by not listening to Turkey on this matter? How long will it take for a tactical mistake to turn into a strategic one?