AMMAN— After weeks of heavy ground and air offensive by the Syrian government forces and Russian air force, the opposition armed groups were forced to withdraw from the city of Khan Sheikhoun in the southern countryside of Idlib governorate on Monday.

A member of the National Liberation Front (NLF) media office confirmed to Syria Direct yesterday that factions have withdrawn from Khan Sheikhoun “as a result of unprecedented Russian military pressure since the beginning of the revolution,” but Taqi al-Din Omar, director of media communication at Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), denied this claim. 

Heavy shelling by Russian forces pushed the fighters to station in the southern part of the city on Monday night, Omar told Syria Direct yesterday. He stressed that the southern enclave of Khan Sheikhoun, which includes the towns of Murk, Kafarzita, and Latamna, is still under HTS’ control. “We will fight for our land and defend it as much as we can, and will not surrender," he added.

The Turkish military presence

In Murk, a town that was lost by the Syrian opposition armed groups in the northern countryside of Hama, exists the Turkish ‘Ninth Military Observation Point.’ These observation points were created to ensure the implementation of the de-escalation zone under the Astana Agreement between Russia, Turkey, and Iran as guarantors of the agreement.

Furthermore, a Turkish military convoy making its way through Idlib to that observation point, along with vehicles belonging to the Faylaq al-Sham faction, was targeted by warplanes on Monday. As a result, three civilians were killed in the attack and 12 were injured, according to a Turkish Defense Ministry statement. Syrian opposition media platforms also reported the death of a member of Faylaq al-Sham faction and injury of three other faction members.

While the member of the information office of NLF explained the covey's mission as “to establish a new observation point in Tal al-Nimr,” which was captured later by the Syrian government forces, the Turkish Defense Ministry statement said that the goal of the convoy was “to keep the supply routes open, to ensure the safety of our observation post and to prevent further loss of civilian/innocent lives in the region.”

The Turkish government condemned the targeting, saying that it was "contrary to the existing agreements, cooperation and dialogue with the Russian Federation," and stressed that it will take "the necessary measures to prevent the recurrence of such incidents."

In the same vein, the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Tuesday that Turkey does not intend to withdraw the ninth observation point to another place, calling on the Syrian regime “not to play with fire”.

"We will do all that it takes for the safety of our soldiers," he said. 

Following the incident, two Turkish F-16 fighter jets briefly flew over Syrian airspace, but the military convoy stopped in the village of Maar Hitat in the southern countryside of Idlib, 14 kilometers from Khan Sheikhoun, media activist Mohammed al-Idlibi told Syria Direct.

While Cavusoglu added that Ankara is in contact with Russia about the attack on the Turkish convoy, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov responded by saying at a press conference in Moscow on Tuesday, that "the Turkish side has been informed that Moscow will prevent any terrorist attacks in the de-escalation zone in Idlib and that the Russian military is on the ground in the region."

Also, while the Syrian government did not comment on the bombing of vital civilian facilities in northwestern Syria over the past months, it was quick to condemn the entry of the Turkish military convoy, and considered it to be supporting "the defeated terrorists of Jabhat al-Nusra [HTS]," according to a statement by a source from the Syrian Foreign Ministry released by the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA). 

The targeting of the Turkish convoy was met with cynicism among Syrians. "Turkey has no prestige internationally and domestically, [because] it is unable to protect its soldiers," al-Idlibi said. "Imagine they [Russia and the regime] did not allow them to create a new observation point!"

What next?

After the Syrian opposition announced its withdrawal from Khan Sheikhoun, the government forces’ moves indicate a possibility that the government will advance to the city of Maarat al-Numan, north of Khan Sheikhoun. This reinforces the scenario that the regime will continue its military campaign until at least the Damascus-Aleppo international road can be opened.

However, the Syrian military and strategic analyst Ahmed Hamadeh told Syria Direct last Thursday that the military progress made by the government forces in the vicinity of Khan Sheikhoun indicates that the Syrian regime and the Russians are moving to control the entire Syrian geography and change the reality on the ground to impose the Russians' vision of a solution within reconciliation. 

 

A version of this article was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Nada Atieh