AMMAN — Russian planes carried out at least 30 airstrikes in the Jabal al-Zawiya area of Idlib province on Monday and Tuesday, signifying a dangerous escalation in the northwest province where a fragile ceasefire has held since its establishment by Turkey and Russia on March 5.
Though there have been near daily violations of the ceasefire by primarily Syrian government forces, the series of strikes which started on Thursday mark the first time that Russia has dropped bombs in northwest Syria since the signing of the deal.
The strikes killed two civilians and injured eight others, and caused, according to the Response Coordination Group, 5,834 civilians to flee Jabal al-Zawiya in scenes reminiscent of the aerial campaign against northwest Syria just a few months earlier which displaced over 900,000 people.
The Russian airstrikes were prompted by limited offensives launched by jihadist groups Huras al-Din and “Rouse the Believers” in regime-held territory in Sahel al-Ghab in the western Hama countryside on Thursday and Monday. Regime forces responded by shelling the surrounding area and quickly retook the seized villages.
The operations by the jihadist groups were not the first to target regime forces over the last three months; however, they were the first to prompt Russian aerial attacks. The disproportionate nature of the Russian response, which continued after the incursions were rebuffed, has prompted speculation about Russia’s goals with its recent airstrikes.
How intertwined are Libya and Idlib?
The sudden Russian escalation in northwest Syria comes on the back of significant gains by Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), which is supported by Turkey, against the Russian-backed Libyan National Army (LNA) and the launch of a campaign to push deeper into LNA held-territory in eastern Libya.
Previously, Turkey and Russia has been able to stand on opposing sides of the Syrian conflict with minimal harm to their overall relationship; however, the recent escalation of the conflict in Libya seems to have the potential to upset the delicate balance between the two countries.
“It seems more and more that the Russians are linking Libya and Syria to each other,” said Omer Ozkilzclik, an security studies analyst with the Ankara-based think tank SETA, which is affiliated with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). “It might be possible that Russia wants to increase its leverage in Libya by escalating in Idlib,” Ozkilzclik told Syria Direct.
In Idlib, it is Russia that holds most of the cards. The fact that the Syrian province sits on Turkey’s southwestern border means that any renewed waves of displacement will be sent in its direction and will most likely require humanitarian action from Ankara.
Further, for Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan in particular, the issue of refugees and Syria more broadly could be existential. Erdogan’s main opposition, the Republican’s People Party (CHP) have used the AKP government’s policy of welcoming Syrian refugees—3.5 million to date—against him.
Popular anger against the presence of Syrian refugees in Turkey has led Erdogan to toughen his stance not only on refugees but also on Syria in general. It is likely that Russia is aware of and actively exploiting these sensitivities in order to place pressure on Ankara to make concessions in both Syria and Libya.
However, Russia has to play a balancing act between the desires of its client, Damascus, who wants to retake “every inch” of Syria as Bashar al-Assad said in a 2016 speech and its ally, Ankara, who opposes the Syrian regime’s advance in the northwest. If it applies too much pressure, Moscow risks pushing Ankara deeper into Washington’s orbit.
In a public signal that the latter is a real possibility, Erdogan told state broadcaster TRT following a phone call with US President Donald Trump on Monday that “there could be a new era between the US and Turkey regarding the Libya process.” By contrast, the White House readout of the call only said that the two heads of state discussed “the wider Mediterranean region.”
Erdogan’s boasting of a paradigm shift in US-Turkey cooperation on the Libya issue could be its own attempt to remind Russia that it has other options as it decides how to move forward with negotiations on the north African country.
Thus Moscow’s parallel strategies in Idlib and Libya will likely include a careful mix of pressure and negotiations on both Idlib and Libya. “Precisely because Moscow is not interested in Ankara and Washington opposing it as a united front, it [makes] deals and compromises with Ankara,” Kirill Semenov, a non-resident expert of the Russian International Affairs Council and columnist for Al-Monitor, told Syria Direct.
“It is likely that in negotiations with Turkey, mutual concessions and compromises may include Libya and Idlib in a ‘single package,’” Semenov explained.
Russia aims locally
The Russian airstrikes could also have a much more local goal. The strikes are “probably a signal for Turkey to expedite the unblocking of the M4 motorway and the creation of a Russian safety [corridor] south of it,” Semenov said.
Securing the M4 international highway, which runs from Latakia to Aleppo, has been a key goal of the Syrian regime for its commercial and strategic transportation significance. In order to ensure the safety of the M4, the March 5 ceasefire established joint Russian-Turkish patrols along the highway. Thus far they have carried out 15 patrols, but popular resistance to the Russian presence has forced many of the patrols to be cut short.
“We should expect an increase in military pressure,” Semenov explained. “Moscow and Damascus aim to take control not only of the security strip but of the entire opposition region south of the M4,” he added.
Whether the Russian strikes are to precede a greater military campaign by Damascus and its allied militias against the last remaining opposition pocket in Syria or if they are just a pressure tactic against Turkey remains to be seen.
Under the terms of the 2018 Sochi Agreement, Turkey is obligated to remove “extremists” from the northwest province, something which it has yet to do. If “Rouse the Believers” or Huras al-Din launches another attack on regime forces, it could provide the pretext the regime needs to launch another full-scale offensive on Idlib.
Both sides have steadily been sending reinforcements and artillery to the frontlines of the northwest since the establishment of the ceasefire, portending an even more destructive battle than the last.
This article reflects minor changes made on 06/11/2020 at 12:21 pm.