Idlib province in Syria has a population of about four million. Around half of them are native to the province. The majority of the other half are displaced persons who ended up there, voluntarily or not, and who enjoy relative safety as a result of the de-escalation zones agreement struck between Russia, Iran and Turkey in 2017 and reaffirmed, with respect to Idlib, in the Russo-Turkish summit in Sochi in September 2018.
But a large portion of that other half consists of an explosive mixture of members of rebel militias and their families who had been relocated to that province after their defeat or prolonged siege in other Syrian battle zones. The main rebel force in this powder keg is Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS). Since December, the HTS, a cosmetic rebranding of Al-Qaeda’s Al-Nusra Front, has been involved in a tit-for-tat escalation with the Syrian army.
As we know, the latter is supported by the Russians who manage critical situations on the ground. It was Russia, for example, that engineered the ceasefire that was recently reached with Turkey, in its capacity as exclusive manager of that terrorist organisation and its affairs on the ground in Idlib, and the official negotiator on future arrangements concerning that large radicalised human arsenal.
On Thursday last week, Syrian army positions in Al-Tah, Abu Harif and Al-Samaka in rural Idlib came under attack by what Syrian and Russian news agencies described as terrorist groups. In fact, the surprise attack was carried out by a 200-strong “regiment”, a term used not to refute that the attackers were terrorists but to reflect their military organisation and the weapons and tactics they used: armoured vehicles and mined vehicles that advanced under heavy fire cover preceded by drones used for reconnaissance missions and targeting.
The Russian Interfax news agency reported 40 dead and 50 wounded in the Syrian locations struck by the attack. The Syrian state news agency cited similar figures. Neither agency mentioned Russian casualties, although eyewitnesses have confirmed that the military installations, which were recently built, had Russian servicemen in them who had been sighted in the area only days before the attack. Also, according to reports, the Russian helicopters that flew in to evacuate the dead and wounded only took Russian casualties, while the Syrian army vacated its own soldiers in government rescue vehicles.
The following day, there occurred what was euphemistically referred to as a “redeployment” of government troops while — significantly — the Russian force withdrew a long way from the front. Retreat is, in fact, the more accurate term for these Syrian government and Russian troop movements after the assault that — also significantly — claimed Russian casualties.
The official hush in the aftermath of that attack was striking. Many Syrians and Russians maintain that the official casualty figures, while already considerable, were considerably lower than the actual toll. The area in which the attack took place was a major assembly and staging point. It contained facilities to receive government forces from the army’s fourth regiment, the regiment that is best armed and equipped for decisive battles, and the Russian force assigned to participate in the planning and timing of joint operations.
The reason forces were concentrated in that area was in anticipation of carrying out plans to take control of the important Al-Rashedin and Al-Liramoun areas. Generally, the Russians coordinate closely with the Turks before any such operations in order to avert any “departures from the script” on the part of the rebel groups under Turkish command. After the Sochi agreements, Ankara had begun to carry out this task punctiliously, evacuating rebel forces from specified areas to enable government forces to reassert control over them and equip them for various security and military purposes.
But Turkey soon found itself in a dilemma. In exchange for clearing the way for government forces in Idlib, it expected the Syrian regime and the Russians to reciprocate by clearing the way for Turkish forces and allied militias in the predominantly Kurdish region in northern Syria. But there the situation remains pending. So, meanwhile, Turkey remains responsible for a host of rebel fighters in Idlib, plus their families, which is to say some hundreds of thousands of people who moved to that area several years ago in the framework of a Turkish administered system that has yet to find a way to assimilate its hot-headed charges among the larger civilian populace.
This is where Libya came into Ankara’s calculations. The Libyan cauldron would be perfect for a profitable recycling operation: Turkey would be able to reuse its Syrian jihadists to achieve gains in another hotspot while ensuring the continuity of mutual clearing-the-way arrangements with the Russians and the regime in Syria. But Libya was also very much in the back of the Turkish mind for another reason.
That would become clear in the recent HTS attack in Idlib which delivered a particularly nasty Turkish message to Russia expressing Ankara’s disappointment at Moscow’s performance with regard to the Libya conflict. It was clear that the two sides had coordinated closely over this question beforehand. A month ago, Erdogan hosted Putin in Ankara and, after a round of intensive talks, they surprised the world with a joint statement announcing a Libyan ceasefire initiative, designating the day and time for the guns to fall silent.
Immediately afterwards, the Libyan rivals flew to Moscow for negotiations in which the Turkish foreign minister made himself visibly active. Then followed the Berlin conference and its outputs. Ankara was not pleased with how these stages panned out, and it blamed the Russians for failing to deliver on their end of the bargain over Libya.
So, Turkey turned to a powder keg with a fuse ready to be lit. That powder keg, labelled HTS, was addressed to the Russians and said that Turkey was prepared to jettison its major, multifaceted deal with the Russians in Syria if it didn’t get what it wanted in Libya. The explosion threw into relief just how important Libya is to Ankara.
A version of this article appears in print in the 30 January, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.