Conflict Alerts # 40, 4 March 2020
In the news
On 3 March, Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan voiced his hopes for an Idlib ceasefire deal in his upcoming meeting with Vladimir Putin, his Russian counterpart on March 5.
On the date, the situation in the Saraqeb city of Syria’s Idlib province is in flux as the rebel groups and Syrian forces scuttle for control over Idlib. In less than a month, reins of Saraqeb changed hands twice. Reports of Turkish drone-power backed opposition forces taking strategic positions in Idlib are adding to the dynamicity of the battle ahead of the summit.
Meanwhile, Syrian state media and the opposing armed groups are releasing contradictory reports amid persistent street fighting.
Issues at large
First, amidst heavy Russian bombardment and fighting, on 2 March, SANA (Syrian state media) claimed the government had seized Saraqeb back from the rebels; pledging to “confront the flagrant Turkish aggression”. Turkish-backed opposition forces had reclaimed the city on 27 February. Since December, Iranian-Russian backed Syrian forces have advanced in Idlib, the opposition’s last stronghold.
Second, Turkish deployed UAVs and drones are becoming a game-changer; opposition claims gaining control over parts of Idlib’s Jabal al-Zawiya curbing government’s advance towards the M4 highway that links Latakia to Aleppo.
Third, on 28 February, the deadline Erdogan had given the Assad regime to withdraw from northwest Syria had expired. On 29 February, Turkey announced the launching of operation Spring Shield against Syrian government; apparently after the 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in Idlib.
Refugee crisis, game-changing Turkish drones, upcoming Erdogan-Putin summit, and the fluid persistent battles add to the complexity of the ongoing Syrian war. First, with the exchange of threats post-Turkey downing two Syrian warplanes, Turkey and Russia are inching towards direct confrontation (from proxy wars) in Syria. In the past, although they were on opposing sides, they had closely coordinated.
Second, Syria-Turkey (NATO-member) confrontation poses a worry of a larger conflict resulting in a 2015-like refugee crisis; straining Europe. Turkey (accommodating over 3.6 million Syrian refugees) says it will not absorb more in an attempt to pressurize Europe. Since December, according to UN, over a million people have been displaced in Idlib near Turkey’s southern border causing the worst humanitarian crisis in the Syrian war.
Third, deployment of Turkish-made Bayraktar-TB2 and ANKA-S with the present intensity is a first. Coupled with air-raids, it has altered ground dynamics. High-ranking officials and significant positions of Syrian government and allied militias have been hit; making Assad lose “the psychological advantage”.
Fourth, the upcoming summit would hopefully pacify the situation and avoid the escalation that is looming large.