Turkey hosted an emergency meeting in the capital Ankara with the defence minister of the Syrian interim government and commanders of National Liberation Front forces and factions affiliated with the opposition Syrian National Army (SNA) this week.
According to Syrian sources, the meeting was led by Turkish Intelligence Chief Hakan Fidan and was also attended by various Turkish officials. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan participated in the meeting via video call, telling the factions to “prepare for a major battle” in Syria.
During the meeting, the Turkish officials informed the SNA factions that talks between Ankara and Moscow had broken down and that Russia would continue its military operations in Syria. The Syrian opposition would have to defend itself against Russian troops and those loyal to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Ankara would provide support for the SNA.
The meeting came at a time of military escalation by regime forces under cover of Russian air strikes on Aleppo and Idlib in northern Syria after breaches and then the collapse of the ceasefire agreement reached in Ankara on 10 January and signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan.
The coming weeks will likely witness intense military confrontations between the regime and its Russian supporters and the armed opposition factions, since the Russian-Turkish negotiations have failed to reach an agreement to end the military strikes.
The opposition factions said they were ready for battle and had already defeated regime troops on several battlefronts, causing serious losses. The regime has not admitted this, but human rights monitors concur.
Commenting on the capability of opposition forces to resist an onslaught by the regime and Russia, Jamil Al-Saleh, commander of the NSA’s Al-Ezza Forces, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “advanced weapons are being used with the support of the major factions. We are prepared to turn the tables from defensive to offensive when necessary.”
Signs that Russia will escalate its campaign in Idlib have included statements made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to UN Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen during a meeting last week.
“We will continue operations against remnants of terrorist groups in Idlib in northeast Syria,” Lavrov said, referring to the opposition forces. He said Russian wanted to “cleanse” the area of fighters (from Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham [HTS], formerly the Al-Nusra Front) present in Idlib and its surrounding area.
The Syrian opposition admits that these combatants are present in Idlib, and the HTS is listed as a terrorist group because of its connections to Al-Qaeda. But local residents say these fighters only constitute one per cent of the overall combatants in the area, meaning that for every fighter linked to HTS there are 99 belonging to factions adhering to military codes and respecting human rights in times of war.
During the Turkish-Russian negotiations on Idlib, Moscow insisted that the Syrian regime and its forces must take charge in the area. It suggested that a comprehensive settlement be reached in Idlib, similar to the one in Deraa in southern Syria where a peaceful settlement or semi-surrender has allowed opposition combatants to relocate to border areas close to Turkey.
In return for an agreement on Idlib, the opposition would hand over areas under their control, the Russians said. But fighters in the last stronghold of the armed Syrian opposition in Syria strongly refuse the proposal.
The negotiations between Russia and Turkey also aimed to open the highways between Aleppo and Damascus and Aleppo and Latakia (the M5 and M4), but Russia seems no longer interested in opening these even though Turkey is willing to broker a deal with the factions to reach a formula to open them.
According to opposition military sources, regime forces are preparing to attack areas under opposition control in Idlib on three fronts. They told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the goal of the regime is Maarat Al-Numan, Saraqib and the countryside around Aleppo. The regime has deployed reinforcements in preparation for marching into the last strongholds of the armed opposition, and the area will be a major battlefield despite the presence of civilians there.”
In an unusual development for Russian troops in Syria, which are mainly stationed at the Hmeimim military base, Russia announced that 40 regime troops had been killed in an attack by opposition factions near Idlib.
Naji Al-Mustafa, a spokesman for the National Liberation Front which is composed of factions present in the area, said that “attacks by the regime and Russia have not stopped, but the revolutionaries are standing their ground and are prepared to take back any areas they lose.”
Factions in areas still under opposition control are under the umbrella of the SNA of the opposition interim government except for areas in northwest Syria that can be divided into two regions. Dere Al-Furat, Nabe Al-Salam and Ghosn Al-Zaytoun are under Turkish military supervision in the northern countryside around Aleppo. Areas in the western countryside are under the control of the National Liberation Front, which joined the SNA at the end of 2019, and are where the HTS forces are located.
Humanitarian conditions in the areas around Idlib and Aleppo are becoming worse amid continued bombings and attacks on civilian areas, as well as the bitter winter conditions. Syria Response Coordinators (SRC) working in the areas said this week that some 27,000 civilians had fled their homes in rural Aleppo towards the border with Turkey due to heavy bombing by regime and Russian forces.
Raed Al-Saleh, director of Civil Defence personnel in the areas, told the Weekly that “the number of displaced people fleeing bombings in west Aleppo and south Idlib over the past ten days has reached 98,000, added to the 379,000 people who have fled over the past two months. Today, there are nearly 1.5 million people who have fled their homes in the past year and in the first month of this year.”
Describing the humanitarian conditions in Idlib, Al-Saleh said that “there are no words to describe the situation in Idlib and among its residents now. Catastrophic… tragic… these words don’t even come close to describing the situation.”
Will Turkey ask the opposition to surrender? Will Russia agree to halt its bombings and regime attacks to spare the area from more death and destruction? Will the armed opposition be able to stand its ground in the face of Russian and regime forces? These are all possible scenarios, with the work of the Syrian White Helmets, the Civil Defence volunteers, likely having to rise to meet catastrophic levels of detruction.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.