By Ambassador Peter Ford for VT

‘Sochi 2.0’ agreement has brought about a pause in fighting its chances of lasting are slim. Russia seems keen to avoid open conflict with Turkey and is accordingly giving Turkey one last chance to act against the extremist groups in Idlib, especially Hayat Tahrir Ash-Sham.

The crunch will come over the willingness of the groups to draw back from the M4 highway linking Aleppo with the coast, permit its unmolested use, and respect the joint Russo-Turkish patrols which are supposed to police it. Previous experience suggests they will not, and that they actively desire to bring Turkey into the conflict more and more.

Although Turkey prevented a jihadi rout in the last round of fighting by the deployment of thousands of troops and deadly drones, causing high casualties on the Syrian side, it took heavy casualties itself which Turkish public opinion finds hard to stomach when the cause is so unclear. Russia demonstrated in the course of the battle that when the chips were down it was ready to strike Turkish troops, although it did not advertise the fact.

It is only too likely therefore that a further round of fighting will occur with the same scenario reproducing itself, although in the next round the city of Idlib is likely to become more of a target, prompting the massive civilian exodus which is Turkey’s nightmare. and from South Front:

On March 6, the Syrian region of Greater Idlib entered another ceasefire phase with al-Qaeda-linked groups breathing a sigh of relief thanks to Turkish sacrifices in the battle against the Syrian Army. However, the pause in the Turkish-Syrian military confrontation just reduced the tensions rather than put an end to them.

A few minutes after the start of the ceasefire agreed by Turkish and Russian presidents in Moscow, intense fighting erupted between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and pro-government forces. ‘Democratic al-Qaeda rebels’ attacked positions of regime troops near Fleifel, Sufuhon, and Fatterah. Meanwhile, Turkish-backed groups carried out an attack on Russia’s Hmeimim airbase with unmanned aerial vehicles.

In the following days, Idlib militant groups regularly shelled army positions near Saraqib and Kafr Nabul simultaneously complaining about ceasefire violations by the Syrian military. The most active yammerer was the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), an al-Qaeda-affiliated group mostly consisting of Chinese Uyghurs. Its stronghold, Jisr al-Shughur, is located within the agreed buffer zone along the M4 highway.

The situation is especially ironic because the terrorist organization is excluded from the ceasefire. The group’s leadership fully understands that the creation of the buffer zone is not possible as long as it presents there. So, it reasonably expects a Syrian Army operation there.

The TIP’s more courageous counterparts from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham announced that they reject the Moscow agreement. The main reason is that it excludes the al-Qaeda-linked terrorist groups like the TIP and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Additionally, the former offshoot of al-Qaeda in Syria officially thanked Turkey for the assistance in the battle against the Damascus government. The Syrian Army responded to a series of failed militant attacks with a limited offensive in southern Idlib. On March 7, it liberated the villages of Marat Makhus and Burayj.

On March 8, Turkish President Recep Erdogan, to whom Hayat Tahrir al-Sham officially sent its thanks, once again threatened to take military action in Idlib if the ceasefire deal is not adhered to.

“If the promises made regarding Operation Spring Shield are not kept, we reserve the right to clean up [the area] using our own methods,” the Turkish president said.  “We signed this agreement to provide a solution to the crisis in Idlib without further bloodshed. Otherwise, we will continue to walk our own path.”

The statement came as the Turkish Armed Forces continued their military buildup in Greater Idlib sending more and more troops and equipment to Syria. Recently Erdogan forces established several new posts north of the M4 highway, as always just near positions occupied by al-Qaeda terrorists.

The Turkish leader too quickly forgot that his forces recently failed to turn into reality the previous batch of threats against Syria and promises regarding a swift and easy victory in Idlib. Instead, they suffered notable casualties, failed to achieve any of the declared goals and got a painful reminder that the real war is not a piece of cake.

The newly-appointed commander of Iran’s Qods Force, Brig. Gen. Esmail Ghaani, recently visited the province of Aleppo. He was photographed alongside with several other persons, apparently, Qods Force officers working on the ground in Syria. The visit to Brig. Gen. Ghaani to Aleppo is a signal that Iran is not going to abandon its Syrian allies and will support Damascus in the event of a new round of escalation in the region.


About Author: Peter William Ford (born 27 June 1947) is an English diplomat who was ambassador to Bahrain from 1999–2003 and to Syria from 2003–2006.

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