The Turkish army launched a long-announced offensive against Syrian government forces in Idlib province on Sunday. Operation Spring Shield is designed to push the Syrian army back to positions south of the Turkish observation post in Idlib. With the advance of the Syrian government army against the rebels in Idlib in the past few weeks, six of the twelve observation posts had fallen behind the Syrian lines.
The goal of the operation, Turkish defense minister Hulusi Akar said on Sunday in a televised speech, was “to end the regime’s massacres and prevent a wave of refugees.” According to Akar, the Turkish army destroyed dozens of Syrian tanks, helicopters, and howitzers. She also “neutralized” 2,212 Syrian soldiers.
Official Syrian authorities confirmed losses and reported the shooting down of two Syrian fighter jets. According to the Syrian Human Rights Observatory in London, the Turkish army had already killed more than 70 Syrian soldiers and destroyed several military facilities on Saturday. According to Turkish information, this includes a chemical weapons factory near Aleppo, which the Syrian government vehemently denies.
On Saturday evening, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a public statement for the first time since Thursday night’s devastating airstrike that killed 36 Turkish soldiers. Drones and artillery attacked positions around the strategically important city of Sarakib on the highway that connects Damascus to Aleppo after rebels had conquered Sarakib. Syrian troops were also bombed near Maarat al-Numan. Erdogan claimed that 300 military vehicles were destroyed, including 90 tanks.
Even if this information is exaggerated, as is so often the case, the Turkish army appears to have successfully counterattacked. This was made possible because the Russian Air Force did not intervene. The Russian S-300 air defense in Syria was also not activated, which allowed the use of Turkish combat bombers and drones over Idlib. After Thursday night’s attack, Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered Russian troops in Idlib to remain neutral.
Breathing space for the refugees
The Russian reluctance and the Turkish attacks initially give civilians and refugees in Idlib a short respite. According to the UN, more than 1 million of the approximately 3 million inhabitants of the province are on the run. Most of them have found shelters or tents along the Turkish border. The situation is catastrophic, the UN’s aid transports have only occasionally crossed the border in recent weeks.
In parallel to the fighting, there have been intensive talks between Russian and Turkish delegations in the past few days about a new comprehensive ceasefire in Idlib. On Saturday afternoon, representatives of the foreign and defense ministries of both countries announced that they had agreed to de-escalate in Idlib. Both sides agreed that the fight against “terrorists” should continue.
This primarily means the Islamist militias of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), who used to pretend to be representatives of al-Qaida in Syria and now control most of the rebel area in Idlib. Turkey has massively upgraded the Islamists in recent weeks, for example with portable anti-aircraft missiles. Moscow has long complained that Turkey has never complied with its obligation to disarm so-called terrorist groups under the ceasefire agreement to form a de-escalation zone in Idlib. At the same time, however, the Assad troops never adhered to the ceasefire.
That should now also be the main topic at the meeting between the Presidents of Russia and Turkey Erdogan announced for Thursday or Friday this week is flying to Moscow with Western backing. At a special session on Friday, NATO had emphasized its solidarity with Turkey and the United States made it clear at a special session of the UN Security Council on Friday night that it would provide military support for Turkey in its “self-defense” in Syria if necessary.