On 26 October 2020, Russian warplanes bombed a camp belonging to the Turkish-backed Faylaq al-Sham (the Levant Corps) faction in the northwest of the Syrian province of Idlib, which led to the killing of dozens of members of this faction. This targeting was a drastic development, considering that Russia has never previously targeted any Turkish-backed factions since the signing of the Moscow Agreement (5 March 2020).

The Russian bombing came six days after the Turkish forces withdrew from the Morek Post, their largest observation post in the north, according to the Astana de-escalation agreement, in what was then considered a Turkish move to satisfy Russia, which called on the Turks to withdraw from the observation post as well as reduce the number of their forces in the region and withdraw the weapons and military equipment.

Reasons for the Russian escalation and the implications of the Turkish withdrawal

Some analyses indicated that the reason for the Russian bombing of a Turkish-backed faction’s camp is related to the developments in the crisis of the Nagorno Karabakh region, and that through this escalation, Russia highlights its annoyance at Turkey's continued support for Azerbaijan, the continued escalation of the Azerbaijani-Armenian crisis, and Turkey’s despatch of Syrian fighters there, so that they have become close to the Russian border. Other analysts believe that the Nagorno Karabakh crisis cannot lead to an overlapping of the common files between Moscow and Ankara, thus causing a rift in the Russian-Turkish partnership on the Syrian issue as a result of the recent difference in positions between the two sides outside the Syrian borders.

Likewise, followers of the developments in the field situation in northern Syria would consider that the Russian bombing is related to the Turkish withdrawal from the observation post in the town of Morek (northern Hama countryside), for several reasons. In mid-September 2020, the latest of the meetings between the Russian and Turkish technical delegations ended in the city of Ankara, resulting in Russian demands for the reduction of the number of Turkish observation posts in exchange for placing the cities of Tel Rifaat and Manbij under Turkish influence – as an initial step, along with other cities later on. These are the two cities on which Ankara wants to tighten its influence due to the presence of the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD, SDF) there. These forces are accused of being affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is classified by Ankara on its list of terrorist organisations.

The recent Russian bombing could be considered one of the factors of escalation in the northwest of Syria. It is related to the scenario prepared by Turkey for the exchange of spheres of influence during the upcoming period, so that Turkey would withdraw from its largest observation posts and Russia would gradually escalate to take control of cities in southern Idlib surrounding the M4 highway through military ground and air action that targets the south of the Idlib de-escalation zone, in cooperation with the Syrian regular army forces, in return for Turkey's access to cities surrounding its military operations in eastern Syria, the latest of which was the so-called Operation Peace Spring, in which Turkey took control, after an illegal intervention, of the cities of Ras al-Ain and Tal Abyad in October 2019.

Now, a year after the Peace Spring, Turkey wants to expand towards the Ain Issa region (south of Tal Abyad, which is administratively affiliated to it), on the same pretext that Ankara is putting forward, namely the presence of the Kurdish forces there, with a view to completing the establishment of the border strip around the areas under its control in Syria that extend to its borders. The statements of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan revealed the Turkish intentions within this endeavor. On 28 October 2020, he said that his country reserves the right to take new military measures in Syria if the agreements are not implemented regarding the withdrawal of the factions he considers as terrorist organisations from the border areas.

In conjunction with the Turkish withdrawal from the observation post in Morek, the Ankara-backed opposition factions of the so-called National Army launched an attack on the Ain Issa area on the pretext that the area is the origin of the booby-traps that have struck the Peace Spring region recently. In the meantime, the Russians suggested to the Kurdish forces located there to withdraw from the area in exchange for the deployment of the Syrian regular army forces for de-escalation in the area.

However, the Syrian government forces which had entered the centre of the Ain Issa city after the Peace Spring battles in 2019 began to withdraw from it recently, in an indication of the imminence of a new battle to be waged by Turkey that would end up with imposing control over it in a scenario that appears to fall within the framework of Russian-Turkish understandings stipulating the exchange of spheres of influence between the two sides. This scenario is reinforced by the fact that over the past two days, the regular army targeted the strategic city of Ariha (Jericho, south of Idlib), in the vicinity of the M4 highway.

The interests of Turkey and Russia

Turkey wants to impose a 30-kilometre deep border strip in northern Syria that ensures its control over the border areas that would extend from the northwest to the northeast at the indicated depth. Turkey believes that its extension to other areas deep into northeast of Syria, the first of which may be the city of Ain Issa which is geographically connected to the area of ​​Operation Peace Spring, would dispel the dangers of the proximity of the QSD forces to its borders. On the other hand, Russia would like to expand to new areas in the northwest in order to squeeze the forces classified on the lists of terrorist organisations there, such as the Turkistan Party and the Jabhat al-Nusra (Front of the Supporters) and those associated with Al-Qaeda, which were used by Turkey to consolidate its position, given that it did not seek to dismantle those forces and end their influence in cooperation with the local forces affiliated with Ankara for more than six months (since the signing of the Moscow Agreement).

On the other hand, Russia seeks to activate commercial traffic on highways and to link them to the port of Tartus (western Syria), which is within its sphere of influence, as well as protect the vicinity of its main base in Syria (Hmeimim) against any attacks and targeting via drones. Therefore, Russia will seek to take full control of the perimeter of the M4 highway similar to what happened at the beginning of 2020 after the execution of its military operations there and the acquisition of the entire M5 highway after controlling strategic cities in the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib, the most important of which being Saraqib and Maarat al-Numan. Russia considers that the Turkish withdrawals from the observation posts in exchange for areas of influence are appropriate for itself as well as for Turkey, by virtue of the geographical need by both sides for those areas.

Perhaps the scenario of the new exchange of influence is very similar to the field developments that took place at the beginning of 2020 and ended with the Russians controlling large areas of northern Syria. At that time, Turkey threatened to launch large-scale operations to recover the lands lost by the opposition, especially after the killing of more than 20 Turkish soldiers in an air raid. Erdogan threatened with a massive escalation against the regular army forces if they did not withdraw from the areas to which they advanced until the end of February 2020. However, surprisingly, he went to Moscow and signed an agreement with his Russian counterpart in which he acknowledged the acceptance by the Turks of Russian control over the new areas along the M5 highway.

However, the US presence in the northeast of Syria constitutes the main obstacle to any exchange of spheres of influence between the Russians and the Turks, especially that the Americans have re-established their military presence in the Syrian arena by targeting the terrorist groups in the northwest over the recent months via drones, which is an uncharacteristic intense escalation by Washington regarding the exit from the northeastern borders of Syria. However, benefitting from the preoccupation with the US presidential elections and the use by Ankara of the pretext of the threat to security in the region by the Kurds may be the Turks' excuse to launch a limited military action there with a Russian green light that also allows Moscow to expand westward.

Conclusion

  • Turkey has sought to stay in its besieged observation posts in the north of Syria since the beginning of 2020 in order to use them as a negotiating card in its favour for which it would barter Russia's attempts to expand in the northwestern border areas.
  • The upcoming period may witness a new Turkish withdrawal from other observation posts, most notably the control post in the town of Surman (south of Idlib), in an effort to expand its influence within the border strip that it seeks to establish with Russia.
  • Russia seeks to expand into new cities in the northwest in the Idlib countryside, reaching deep into Ariha and Jisr al-Shughour to establish its control in the southern sector of the Idlib de-escalation zone, taking advantage of Turkey’s endeavour to go south of the Peace Spring area as well as to control cities of strategic importance for it such as Manbij and Tal Rifaat.
  • Turkey will likely try to take advantage of the current political preoccupation in the US and the atmosphere of the presidential elections, as happened before when the administration of President Donald Trump allowed it to penetrate into northern Syria and strengthen its presence there within the framework of Operation Peace Spring, which would allow Ankara to re-produce an updated version of that process in other adjacent cities.

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