With Turkey distracted, Syrian regime and Russia pressure Idlib

Over the last week increased airstrikes in Idlib have seen civilians driven from homes and claims in local and regional Arabic media that the Syrian regime is preparing for a major offensive.

People walk past a damaged building in the city of Idlib on May 31, 2019. (photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
People walk past a damaged building in the city of Idlib on May 31, 2019.
(photo credit: KHALIL ASHAWI / REUTERS)
While Turkey summoned thousands of Syrian opposition fighters to aid its invasion of northeast Syria, the Syrian regime and its Russian backers have focused new efforts to dislodge Syrian rebels and extremists from parts of Idlib. Turkey has backed Syrian proxies in its campaign against Kurdish fighters since October 9 when the US withdrew from part of northern Syria. The former Syrian rebel fighters who signed on to fight alongside Turkey as the Syrian National Army have been encouraged to aim their weapons at what Turkey says is the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The result has been a win for the Syrian regime and its backers in Moscow and Tehran. 
Over the last week increased airstrikes in Idlib province in northwest Syria have seen  civilians  driven from homes, allegations of health clinics targeted and claims in local and regional Arabic media that the Syrian regime is preparing for a major offensive. The White Helmets Civil Defense Twitter account claimed on November 26 that a “humanitarian disaster threatens the lives of millions of civilians in northern Syria.” In the war of words in northern Syria, the Syrian regime sees the White Helmets as “terrorists.” For Turkey, which ahs observation posts in Idlib and claims to back the Syrian rebels, it is the Kurdish PKK that are the “terrorists.” I this trade off Turkey uses Syrian Arab units it recruited to fight Kurds in the east so that the Syrian regime and Russia can attack the families of those same Syrian Arabs in Idlib.
An account at Al-Masdar news claims that the Syrian regime army “has sent another large convoy of reinforcements to the southern and southeastern countrysides of Idlib as they prepare to launch a major offensive against the jihadist rebels in the region.” According to this narrative the regime wants to retake Maarat Al-Nu’man near Khan Sheikhoun on the Aleppo-Damascus M-5 highway. It also wants to push towards Jisr al-Shughur.
As the Syrian regime and its Russian backers pressure Idlib, Turkey is in discussions with Russia about Syria. Russia has support 14 meetings of the Astana peace process with Turkey and Iran to solve the Syrian conflict. The US, excluded from the Russian discussions, has been sidelined to eastern Syria. The US has also sidelined its own Syrian Democratic Forces partners in eastern Syria from the Geneva peace process where a new constitutional committee is being worked on.
The main brokers of the conflict in northern Syria today are Turkey and Russia. Although they appear to be on different sides of the conflict, Turkey and Russia today have more in common than they have differences. This includes the S-400 air defense deal for Turkey and other agreements. Turkey’s Chief of General Staff Yasar Guler called his Russian counterpart Valery Gerasimov this week to discuss the country’s policies in the north. This is part of a ceasefire deal Russia worked out on October 22 with Ankara. They have conducted 11 joint patrols in areas formerly held by the US-backed SDF. Anadolu reported the Russia-Turkish discussions but did not give details. Russia is in the midst of several major defense initiatives at the moment, including its Yars-S missile system.
A source told Al-Ain media that reinforcements are aimed to complete the Syrian army’s preparations. “The prospects for expanding military action are high and may occur at any moment in exchange for the continued escalation by armed groups, which are working to strengthen their positions near the fronts facing the positions of the Syrian army in southern Idlib.
Idlib was supposed to be the center of a ceasefire signed between Russia and Turkey in September 2018 that prevented a Syrian regime offensive. Since then the Syrian regime has continually attacks areas in Idlib. Turkey was also supposed to withdraw extremist groups, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which is linked to Al-Qaeda. But the extremists remain. According to the Within Syria Blog twitter account more than 24 Russian air strikes hit areas near Al-Nahr al-Abyad and Jisr al-Shughur over the last days.
Over the last two months Turkey has been able to carry out operations in northeastern Syria using the SNA, while the Syrian regime and Russia carry out operations in Idlib. The two conflicts seemed largely bifurcated and separate. But the presence of Syrian regime forces in eastern Syria since October 13 has complicated matters. In recent weeks there have been clashes between the Turkish-backed SNA and the Syrian regime. This mirrors clashes between the Syrian regime and Syrian rebel and extremist groups in Idlib. These are all largely the same groups, since the SNA is drawn from former Syrian rebels, some of them mercenaries who joined for money and others who joined out of desire for “revenge” against the PKK, asserting that the Kurds in Aleppo helped the Syrian regime in 2016.
The question is how long these two cease-fire zones can remain separate. The model in both of them is similar, with a “ceasefire” that is not actually a ceasefire. In Idlib the Turks have observation points. In areas around Tel Abyad in the northeast, which Turkey calls a “safe zone” the Russians and Turks do join patrols. The respective areas are around 200km from eachother. However two key areas are affected by Turkey’s threats to expand its operations. Turkey would like to harass Tell Rifat and also Manbij. The former area has elements of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units who fled Afrin in March 2018 when Turkey attacked the Kurdish fighters in northwest Syria. Manbij was also run by a military council linked to the SDF up until October when ostensibly the Syrian regime and Russia came to ensure there wouldn’t be a Turkish or Syrian rebel advance. But there are clashes frequently near Tell Rifat. Turkey accuses the PKK of shelling and “terrorist attacks.”
Turkey has threatened to expand its operations in the past. It also wants to keep the SNA forces it recruited distracted. Hired guns need things to shoot at and they were also promised Turkey would return refugees to areas around Tel Abyad. But the millions of refugees have not returned. Eventually the SNA will wonder if Turkey has been using them to fight Kurds while Turkey enables the Syrian regime and Russia to attack Idlib. Turkey’s new air defense, for instance, will not be deployed in northern Syria to stop the airstrikes. So far there have been very few Turkish or Russian casualties, and only a handful of Syrian regime casualties. The Syrian rebels and Kurds have been the ones suffering. If the Syrian regime launched a new offensive with Turkey’s silence, there will be questions about what Turkey agreed to so that it could get Russia to sign off on its “safe zone” in eastern Syria.