The nine-year-old war in Syria is currently raging in the northwestern province of Idlib, with rapidly escalating tensions between government forces of President Bashar al-Assad and the Turkish military.
On Saturday, as Turkey suffered its 16th military casualty in Idlib, its President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he would meet with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel to discuss the situation.
President’s Assad’s forces are backed by Russia, who are clashing with thousands of Turkish troops south of its border with Syria. Turkey has closed the border and is trying to seal itself from waves of displaced refugees as Assad presses forth with a brutal campaign to take back Idlib.
Earlier this month, Turkey opened two more military posts in Idlib in addition to its previously existing posts in northwestern Syria.
Reports emerged on February 8 that the Syrian forces were encircling the Turkish observation post at Al-Eiss, a town in the province of Aleppo, capturing the town and some surrounding areas.
On February 10, at least five Turkish soldiers were injured in attacks by the Syrians. This was followed by more attacks that resulted in the killing of two Turkish soldiers and another five being wounded.
Following the repeated attacks on Turkish forces in the region, on Friday, Ankara threatened “imminent” attacks on Syrian government forces in retaliation. The UN said that the escalation in Idlib would result in a “bloodbath”.
After Erdogan spoke to Putin and agreed to talks to discuss a potential ceasefire, the Kremlin said that “the necessity of unconditional respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria was underlined” during the exchange.
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Assad has been pushing for weeks to recapture Idlib, which, along with parts of neighbouring Hama, Latakia and Aleppo, are the last remaining strongholds of the rebel opposition and other groups that have been attempting to overthrow Assad since 2011.
At one point, the opposition held large parts of Syria under its control, but that changed after Assad, with Russian military support, slowly regained control over most of the country.
In 2015, Idlib province was overtaken by opposition forces. Now, Syrian government forces are attempting to capture the strategic M4 and M5 national highways that connect Idlib, Aleppo and Damascus, the capital of the country.
Idlib skirts the the two national highways and lies between Aleppo in the north and Damascus in the south. It’s proximity to the Turkish border makes Idlib strategically important to the Syrian government.
Since the province fell to opposition forces, there is no one group that controls Idlib, but rather, several separate factions.
International watchdogs say that the dominant faction in Idlib is the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a UN-designated terrorist organization set up in 2017, with links to al-Qaeda.
Also operating in Idlib is the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army, an armed opposition group.
Included in the mix are the remnants of the Islamic State. Watch groups say that other factions in Idlib strongly oppose the presence of IS fighters in the province.
In 2017, Russia and Turkey agreed to de-escalation in Idlib and the province remains one of the last out of the control of the Syrian government.
When Syrian government forces overtook three other de-escalation zones elsewhere in Syria, Turkey approached Russia in 2018 with a proposal to establish a demilitarized zone in Idlib, in what came to be known as the Sochi accord.
Turkey also proposed that it would disarm the Sunni militant group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and remove it from the area, and agreed to reopen the crucial M4 and M5 highways.
However, the situation escalated when Turkey failed to deal with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham according to the terms of the proposal with Russia.
Months of fighting followed, devastating towns and displacing thousands of people. Syrian government forces also recaptured the M4 and M5 highways. Idlib’s strategic location has also made it a target for Syrian government forces.
Idlib’s proximity to the Turkish border makes it not only important for the Syrian government, but also a cause of concern for Turkey.
Since the war started in Syria, thousands of displaced Syrians have sought refuge in Turkey over the years.
According to the latest known figures, Turkey presently hosts some 3.6 million refugees and is feeling the socio-economic and political strain of their presence in the country.
More conflict in Idlib would only serve to displace more people, pushing them towards the Turkish border. Turkey has been witnessing a surge in hostility among its citizens towards refugees and a fresh wave of refugees will only exacerbate the situation.
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Syria’s Aleppo airport has reopened days after Syrian government forces recaptured parts of northwest Aleppo. The move is a major strategic win for Assad’s government, that spent weeks targeting the Idlib province, the last rebel-held area in the country. According to a Reuters report last week, a Syrian Air commercial flight landed at Aleppo’s civilian airport on Wednesday, the first scheduled flight to do so in eight years.
Syria’s Transport Minister Ali Hammoud said approvals were being sought to resume international flights, with plans for flights to Cairo from next month in the pipeline, reported Reuters.
In 2016, Syrian government forces, backed by Russia, regained control of eastern Aleppo, which had until then been under rebel control. These moves follow the reopening of the M5 highway linking Aleppo to the capital Damascus, that the Assad government hopes will revive trade on an important domestic route. Reuters reported that this highway should be ready for civilian use for the first time in years.