A street in Maarat al-Numan town in Idlib captured by Syrian forces after heavy fighting with al-Qaeda affiliates
The capture of the town of Maarat al-Numan in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib bordering Turkey on Wednesday by the government forces must be counted as the first ‘new facts on the ground’ since the murder of Qassem Soleimani twenty-five days ago. The salience is that the military operation against the al-Qaeda affiliates went ahead and actually met with stunning success.
Russia gave strong backing to the military operation. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov candidly admitted that Russian patience was wearing thin, as the al-Qaeda affiliates ensconced in Idlib were becoming belligerent amidst reports of fresh arms supplies reaching them, including TOW anti-tank missiles.
There were other signs too lately that the US was beginning to test the Russian resolve and capability to hold ground in Syria in the post-Soleimani period. Soleimani had a pivotal role in welding the disparate militia groups into an effective fighting force against ISIS and al-Qaeda affiliates.
He commanded immense respect from militia groups. It is a fine tribute to Soleimani that the Iran-trained militia groups took part in the fighting in Maarat al-Numan as a frontline force.
A recent report in the National Interest magazine based on briefing by highly-placed State Department officials openly bragged that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “played a lead role in pushing for a military confrontation against Iran. He reportedly made it his personal message to kill Suleimani, and his State Department is inching towards an endorsement of regime change [in Iran].”
The report added that the Trump administration is “resurrecting the push against [Bashar al] Assad as part of its quiet war on Iran.” Simply put, Pompeo who is wired to Tel Aviv, hopes to bring the US policies in Syria back on the track that Israel always wanted.
However, Moscow has punctured Pompeo’s triumphalist balloon even before it really took off in Idlib. The US has suffered a major blow to its prestige as it watched helplessly the Russian airpower brutally taking apart its proxies in Idlib.
Pompeo’s bitterness shows in his statement on Tuesday condemning “the combined forces of Russia, the Iranian regime, Hizballah, and the Assad regime” for conducting a “large-scale assault upon the people of Idlib and western Aleppo provinces.”
The fall of Maarat al-Numan (after some 9 years) to Syrian government forces cannot be underestimated. The town is situated on the M-4 highway connecting the western province of Latakia (where Russian bases are located) with Syria’s northeastern regions, as it runs all along the Turkish border up to Mosul in Iraq.
Without control of M-4, an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan cannot have access to the Eastern Mediterranean coast. The security and safety of the Russian bases demands that Idlib is cleansed of the extremist al-Qaeda affiliates, which the US might use as proxies. Again, M-4 provides a land route from Iran via Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.
Finally, as is obvious from the above map, control of the strategic M4 highway, some 30-35 km deep inside Syria is vital to secure Turkey’s borders from Kurdish militants, which is becoming the most consequential template of the Turkey-Russia-Syria triangle. This needs some explaining.
If the Russian air forces undertook in Idlib one of the most violent campaigns in the Syrian conflict in recent years, its objective is the elimination of radical jihadist terror groups so that Damascus captures the last rebel-held stronghold in western Syria bordering Turkey. With the control over one-third of the Idlib province and the strategic M-4 and M-5 motorways (the latter connects Damascus with Aleppo), Syrian forces can be expected to continue to advance towards the Turkish border.
However, this is far from a hostile move by Moscow against Turkey. Paradoxically, the greater the territorial control over northern Syria bordering Turkey, the brighter are the prospects for a rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus.
Put differently, the Russian strategic calculus is working on resuscitating the moribund Adana Accord of 1998, the reciprocal deal that encourages Ankara to work with Damascus on issues of border security.
On Friday, in a desperate roll of the dice, the US President Donald Trump telephoned his Turkish President Recep Erdogan by playing on Ankara’s concerns over refugee flow from Idlib. But Erdogan didn’t take the bait.
Interestingly, Turkey has since taken the stance that it will intervene in Idlib only if its 12 observation posts in the province came under attack. Meanwhile, Moscow too is taking care that there is no collateral damage to the Russian-Turkish entente, which of course is of high strategic importance to both sides.
Evidently, both Moscow and Ankara are finessing the emergent situation so that Turkey can live with the new facts on the ground in Idlib. The contradictions can be fully resolved only if the nascent Moscow-brokered reconciliation between Ankara and Damascus gains traction and eventually leads to the vacation of Turkish occupation of Syrian territory.
To be sure, the first ever direct face-to-face meeting since 2011 between Turkey’s intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and his Syrian counterpart Maj. Gen. Ali Mamlouk in Moscow on January 13 has been a leap of faith in that direction. The Kremlin brokered the meeting.
According to Turkish reports, the two spymasters (who are hugely influential political personalities too) already agreed on a nine-point road map to advance their dialogue, including a goal to cooperate against terrorism. Fidan and Mamlouk reportedly discussed possible cooperation to contain the Kurdish militant groups operating in the Turkish-Syrian border.
Suffice to say, a good beginning has been made in breathing new life into the Adana Accord. Moscow can be trusted to build up the nascent comfort level between Ankara and Damascus. The Idlib operation, therefore, is a pre-requisite of the paradigm shift.