US Shakes Up Russian Plans in Syria

In Idlib, a ceasefire between rebels and the regime was in place on Saturday. A few hours after it went into effect, the U.S. weighed in with a military strike.

One can deduce from the outright misery in Idlib’s media coverage that crucial turning points hardly mean anything anymore: On Saturday, the U.S., more specifically the U.S.-led anti-terror coalition, attacked targets in the contested Idlib province without warning – only hours after a ceasefire had begun, at least from the air. The heavy military strike, which targeted a radical jihadi training camp, initially caused major confusion: on social media, Russia supporters and the Syrian regime congratulated themselves as the only ones to do something about Islamic terrorists. And then it was the Americans!

Russia chimed in with criticism, saying that the U.S. attack would jeopardize the ceasefire that Russian President Vladimir Putin practically gave to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as a gift last week in Moscow. An initial ceasefire collapsed at the beginning of August after only a few days.

As a reminder, Turkey has twelve military posts in Idlib province, the last existing rebel stronghold in Syria. With the Syrian-Russian offensive ongoing since May and particularly with the capture of the city of Khan Shaykhun, which had been in rebel hands since 2015, the Turks lost a lot of credit with their Syrian clients in the province on Aug. 19.

On the day that Khan Shaykhun fell, a Turkish military convoy was attacked by the Syrian army. The Turks claimed their convoy was bringing reinforcements to their own posts in Morek. According to the Syrian regime, weapons and machinery were on their way to the rebels in Khan Shaykhun, a dangerous escalation. 

The Idlib Deal

Ankara works together with Turkish-backed Syrian rebels in Idlib, although it cannot get radical groups under control. That was, however, the agreement reached between Russia and Turkey in the fall of 2018 in Sochi. This agreement prevented a directly imminent regime offensive in the region.

The influence of Hay’at Tahriral-Sham, which is attributed to the influence of al-Qaida, continued to grow at the beginning of the year anyway. It controls the majority of the province, and attacks the regime and the Russians from there. Multiple Russian deadlines imposed on Turkey to create a demilitarized zone have passed. Since May, rebels – and civilians – have been bombarded from the air and on the ground; Russian special forces also operate on behalf of the regime. The United Nations has confirmed attacks on health facilities and schools, as well as 500 civilian deaths and a further half-million new internal refugees. They are no longer allowed into Turkey.

Rebels and civilians fear that the ceasefire only helps the regime to prepare for a new attack. Russia, on the other hand, is very keen to keep Ankara in line; in mid-September, a new round of talks will take place in Astana that is supposed to finally pave the way for a political process – a precondition for an internationally-supported reconstruction of Syria. 

The Northeast Deal

Another reason why Putin keeps accommodating Erdogan is because of competition in Washington. In a telephone conversation on Wednesday, Erdogan and President Donald Trump once again confirmed their cooperation on the northeastern Syrian-Turkish border. By way of a “safe zone,” the PKK-allied Syrian Kurds of the PYD/YPG are to be driven out at Turkey’s behest, or fought. But the U.S., which groomed the YPG to fight against the Islamic State, does not want that.

For Moscow and Damascus, a Turkish-American partnership in the northeast means one thing in particular: This region will not return to regime control so quickly. But the Russians have leverage: Turkish discontent with the deal.

That’s because despite Erdogan’s ostentatious optimism, the “safe zone” will not meet Turkey’s demands. It would be smaller than a desired 460 km long and 32 km wide. (approximately 286 miles long by 20 miles wide). However, notably, the Turks will not control the region alone, but rather together with the U.S. And while the YPG recently retreated somewhat under U.S.-orchestrated media attention, there is no talk of it fully disbanding and disarming.

The start of the Idlib offensive was already seen as Russia’s way of punishing Turkey for working together with the U.S. in the northeast at the cost of Syrian sovereignty. Now Putin has obliged Erdogan yet again with the ceasefire – and the U.S. swiftly complicated things with its strike. But unlike before, Ankara and Moscow were not informed about the imminent U.S. operation, and this is actually a rule of the game.

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