Moscow meeting signals deepening Russian-Turkish cooperation over Idlib, as Syrian government ramps up bombardment
Dawn had just broken over Saraqeb on Sunday, when a constellation of cluster munitions burst over the town and ripped through its local council building.
It was the fourth consecutive day of shelling over the northwestern Syrian town, part of a wave of bombardment that also struck more than a dozen cities and villages in rebel-held Idlib province. Homes, government buildings and morning markets were hit, leaving dozens of dead and wounded.
“The situation right now isn’t stable at all, and the local council has announced a three-day period of mourning while also closing schools out of fear that they will be targeted by Assad’s militias,” Saraqeb resident Mahmoud Abu Rifaat told Syria Direct on Monday.
He added that shelling has often targeted “residential areas and places where civilians gather.”
Amidst the onslaught, a scheduled Turkish military patrol was reportedly forced into hasty retreat while making a round through the area—abandoning what was meant to be a routine circuit demonstrating that Ankara was still in control of the situation.
Hours later, on Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Moscow to discuss a range of topics related to Syria and broader bilateral cooperation across the region.
The two leaders also announced plans to continue military patrols in and around Idlib, in line with an earlier Russian-Turkish agreement meant to stave off a Syrian government offensive on the opposition stronghold.
“We are basically entering joint patrolling, at least patrolling from two sides,” Putin said on Monday.
And yet the two leaders’ confident notes played out at the same time that the Syrian government ramps up a devastating aerial campaign across the country’s last rebel bastion.
Despite increasing violations of a Turkish-Russian ceasefire covering the area—as witnessed by pro-government shelling that has killed more than 50 people since last week, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) conflict monitor—Russia and Turkey appear satisfied with the state of play in the northwest.
Speaking at a press conference before heading to the Moscow summit on Monday, President Erdogan said that cooperation with Russia “continues to increase and become stronger [day by day].”
The launch last month of Turkish military patrols through opposition territory is cited by officials as a small sign of success.
On March 8, Ankara launched the first Turkish military patrols in Idlib. Since then, the patrols have completed another six rounds through the area.
Patrols have so far focused on the M5 highway that links Damascus with Aleppo, running right through the rebel-held northwest.
Last September, presidents Putin and Erdogan convened in the Russian city of Sochi for what was seen as an 11th-hour meeting to prevent a devastating Syrian government offensive in Idlib.
The resulting memorandum ultimately created a “buffer zone” separating pro-government forces and embattled opposition factions, while Turkey was tasked with demilitarizing the area of rebels’ heavy weaponry as well as the presence of hardline Islamist groups.
And yet the political roadmap laid out in the Sochi agreement appears moribund for the time being. Hardline Islamist coalition Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) controls approximately 80 percent of Idlib province, following a campaign of rapid military expansion in January that saw the group seize swathes of territory from rival Turkish-backed rebel factions.
Control of the M5 as well as the M4 highway, which runs from Latakia province into Idlib, was another key stipulation in the Sochi agreement. The two routes have historically served as critical arteries of international commerce between Turkey and countries neighboring Syria.
Russia and Turkey had agreed that the routes should be cleared of rebel groups and re-opened for commerce before the end of last year.
That deadline went by unmet.
Speaking to Syria Direct after the first Turkish patrols last month, Elizabeth Teoman, Turkey analyst with the Washington DC-based Institute for the Study of War, said that “plans for closer military cooperation in the form of future independent, joint patrols…are likely aimed at fulfilling the latter clauses of the [Sochi agreement] on the resumption of commercial trade.”
“This is no easy task and not one I expect to be imminently completed,” she told Syria Direct at the time.
According to Mustafa Bakour, a commander from the Jaish al-Izza rebel faction that controls territory in southern Idlib, “there is a huge struggle for control over these main highways right now.”
“The importance of the international roads is [highlighted] by the agreement that took place between Russia and Turkey” last September, he told Syria Direct on Monday, adding that the “opening of the roads is considered vital to Turkey as well.”
To many observers, the Assad government is trying to play the spoiler in any international agreement that would prevent its complete reconquest of the territory it lost during the last eight years of conflict.
According to Ömer Özkizilcik, an analyst from the SETA Foundation in Ankara, the timing of this most recent escalation is no accident in the lead up to the Moscow summit.
He said it fits into a broader strategic pattern by the Syrian government of using military pressure to sabotage Turkish and Russian cooperation over the de-escalation agreement that, for the time being, has put a freeze on its territorial ambitions.
“The regime is systematically bombing Idlib in order to not de-escalate and to prevent a ceasefire, as they wish to capture all of Idlib, in line with their ‘every inch’ policy,” Özkizilcik told Syria Direct.
“The Assad government believes that if there is a real ceasefire agreement in Idlib, they will lose the opportunity to launch a major military operation.”
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has repeatedly stated his intention to retake “every inch” of Syria from rebel groups, following a series of forcible evacuation and reconciliation agreements that have seen millions of Syrians displaced from former opposition-held pockets around the country towards the northwest.
There, an estimated 3.5 million civilians remain caught between an array of Syrian forces and allied militias on one side, and a hard Turkish border on the other.