Ankara and Moscow are again facing an escalation of violence in Syria’s last rebel-held territory, a development that puts their cooperation to the test even as they support opposing sides in the eight-year war that has devastated Syria. An all-out offensive by Syrian government forces to capture Idlib in northwestern Syria from insurgents could unleash an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, for the area is home to 3 million people. Turkey, which is already hosting more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees, is facing strong pressure from Syria, Iran and Russia to deliver on its pledge to control the armed rebel factions in Idlib. But Turkey also needs Russia to rein in Syrian President Bashar Assad to prevent a massive outflow of refugees and to keep Turkish soldiers on the ground safe. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin “have an incentive to cooperate and ensure that nobody’s interests are totally trampled,” says Aaron Stein, the director of the Middle East program in American think-tank Foreign Policy Research Institute. In September, the two leaders brokered a cease-fire for Idlib in the Russian resort of Sochi, preventing a bloody onslaught, despite the fact that Russia has firmly backed Assad and Turkey supports opposition forces. Nine months later, the truce has failed. The agreement called for a 15-to-20 kilometer (9-to-12 mile) demilitarized zone free of insurgents and heavy weaponry and for two key highways crossing through Idlib to be reopened. The demilitarized zone has been breached and the highways are at the
Russian-backed Syrian government forces will be able to advance all the way to the Turkish border if they pierce rebel defences in the northwest, a top opposition official said, urging Turkey to do more to shield the area from a major attack. The month-long onslaught is the most serious escalation of the war between President Bashar al-Assad and his enemies since last summer. Syrian government air strikes and barrel bombing backed by Russian air power have uprooted around 250,000 people in the territory, the last significant rebel stronghold. Fawaz Hilal, head of the “Salvation Government” that runs Idlib province, expressed confidence that opposition fighters gathered in the Idlib region from all over Syria would be able resist the onslaught. “This ferocious attack is a bone-breaking battle. If the regime is able to break our defensive lines in northern Hama and southern Idlib it will not stop until it reaches the borders,” Hilal told Reuters in an interview. His government, backed by the powerful Tahrir al-Sham jihadist group, had called on its employees to help shoulder the “military burden” through building sandbag defences, manning front lines, financial support or any other help. “We are all concerned with repelling this attack,” he said. The bombardment has killed 229 civilians and injured 727 since April 28, according to The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations (UOSSM), a U.S.-based medical NGO. Hilal spoke at his office in Idlib city, the provincial capital where life has continued as normal as the offensive has mostly
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar and his Russian counterpart discussed ways to reduce tension in Syria’s Idlib province, the Turkish Defence Ministry said on Tuesday, after the biggest military escalation in northwest Syria in nearly a year. Russia has backed the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey has backed some rebels in Syria’s eight-year civil war, but they have recently worked together to try to contain fighting in the country’s northwest. That effort has been strained by the surge in violence in Syria’s last major insurgent stronghold in recent weeks. The offensive by the Syrian army and its allies, backed by Russia, has uprooted more than 150,000 people, the United Nations says, while rescue workers and civil defence officials say more than 120 civilians have been killed. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called the attacks by Syrian forces a flagrant violation of a September ceasefire that had averted a government offensive. He said in a tweet on Tuesday it went counter to the spirit of Turkey’s efforts to work with Russia and Iran to reduce hostilities and casualties in Idlib and neighbouring areas. On Monday, rebels said they mounted a counterattack against government forces. A senior rebel commander said on Tuesday the offensive showed an array of rebel forces – from Turkey-backed rebels to jihadists – were still able to prevent the army from making major advances despite heavy air strikes. “We conducted this lighting offensive to show the Russians we are not easy prey and throw the
Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed his concern over terrorist activities in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, the RIA news agency cites the Kremlin as saying. President Vladimir Putin discussed the latest developments in Syria’s last stronghold of militants with members of Russia’s Security Council on Friday, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was quoted as saying.
Chased out of their own homelands and targeted in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, experienced foreign jihadists embraced Syria's war as their own starting around 2013, two years into the conflict.
Many joined the Islamic State group but others stuck by Al-Qaeda and its former Syrian affiliate -- which now leads the powerful Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) alliance dominating Idlib.