Russian and Syrian government air strikes on Monday hit Darat Izza near the Turkish border, wounding several civilians and forcing the closure of two hospitals due to damage. The town is located about 30 km (20 miles) north of Aleppo, and recently came under the control of Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army.
Backed by heavy Russian air strikes and pro-Iranian militias, government forces have intensified their offensive to recapture the Aleppo countryside and parts of neighboring Idlib province in the far northwest of Syria where anti-Assad insurgents hold their last strongholds. Witnesses also reported air strikes in southern areas of Idlib province in what the opposition said was a “scorched earth policy” that has left dozens of towns and villages in ruins.
In the biggest single displacement of the nine-year-old civil war, the United Nations said on Monday that over 875,000 Syrians, mostly children and women, have now fled towards the border with Turkey since their towns and villages were targeted by the heavy aerial bombing campaign since 1 December. According to UN Spokesman David Swanson, more than 40,000 have been displaced in the last four days alone from western Aleppo province, which has been the scene of heavy fighting.
Syrian military sources said yesterday that regime forces have now asserted full control of dozens of towns in Aleppo’s northwestern countryside, vowing to push on with what they called their “sacred and noble task to rid what remains of terrorist organizations wherever on Syria’s geography they are found.”
In an appearance televised by state media on Monday, Assad said his forces’ rapid recent gains signal the eventual defeat of the insurgency against him but cautioned the conflict has not yet ended. “We know this liberation does not mean the end of the war or the crushing of all plots or the end of terror or the surrender of the enemy, but it definitely rubs their noses in the dirt,” Assad said, underscoring that the current campaign marks “ a prelude to their (opposition forces’) final defeat, sooner or later.”
“The battle to liberate Aleppo and Idlib will continue as will the battle to liberate all of Syrian soil,” Assad proclaimed.
A military news service run by the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terrorist organization, which is allied with Assad, reported that the advances were made after troops loyal to besieged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad drove insurgents from the vital M5 Damascus-Aleppo highway. According to the Associated Press, the motorway is “key to who controls the country” and “Assad’s highway to victory,” described as “one of most coveted prizes in Syria’s civil war” the regime finally regained “after eight years of fighting.” The pro-Damascus Al-Watan newspaper reported that the M5 is now being cleared of barricades and will be ready for civilian use by the end of the week.
The Aleppo International Airport has also been reopened, with the first flight from Damascus to Aleppo slated for today and addition routes to Cairo within days, according to the SANA state news agency.
Alarmed by the new refugee crisis on its border, Turkey has sent thousands of troops and hundreds of convoys of military equipment to reinforce its observation posts in Idlib, established under the 2018 Sochi de-escalation agreement with Russia, and called on Moscow to stop the current attacks.
Ankara, which backs rebels seeking to oust Assad, has been outraged since Syrian attacks in the Idlib region killed 13 Turkish troops in two weeks. Turkish-backed insurgent forces, who include Western-backed rebels and jihadist militants, have launched an operation in Idlib to retake areas lost to Syrian government forces.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has demanded a withdrawal by Assad’s forces, warning it would use military power to drive back the Syrian army and its allies out unless they withdraw by the end of the month. On Saturday, he appeared to move that date forward, saying Turkey would “handle it” before the end of the February if there has still been no retreat. The Turkish leader stressed that reaching a “solution in Idlib” is “the most urgent matter in Syria at the moment,” necessitating “the (Syrian) regime stopping its aggression as soon as possible and withdrawing to the borders in the agreements;” adding “We would be pleased if we can do this with the support of our friends. If we have to do it the hard way, we are also up for that.”
It is important to note that such an operation could mean ‘open conflict’ between Turkey and Russia. Assad’s offensive has upset the fragile cooperation between Ankara and Moscow, which support opposing factions in the conflict but have collaborated toward the attainment of a political solution to the war that erupted in 2011. Russia claims that Turkey has only aggravated the situation in Idlib with a mass deployment of military forces. The two sides failed to reach an accord after a call between Presidents Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin and a meeting between their foreign ministers this past weekend, following a previous round of two days of talks in Ankara last week. Another meeting of Turkish and Russian officials aimed at de-escalate tensions in Syria opened in Moscow yesterday, and is set to continue with a fresh round today, according to a spokesman for Turkey’s ruling AK Party.
Speaking to reporters in Ankara, AK Party spokesman Omer Celik dismissed Russia’s accusations and blamed the situation on advances by Syrian government forces in Idlib. “In recent days, there has been numerous biased statements from Russia accusing Turkey. Some of these statements are official, the others are released through media,” said Celik, arguing that “We can clearly state that all kind of information saying Turkey breached the (Sochi) agreement is wrong. These are not true. This agreement is breached by the (Syrian) regime.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that “it is not possible” to leave ongoing Islamist militant attacks on Russian bases and Syrian positions “unanswered,” but that “troops from Russia and Turkey on the ground in Syria, in Idlib, are in constant contact with each other, looking at changes in the conditions. They have a full understanding of each other.”
While speaking at the Munich Security Conference on 15 February, Lavrov made it clear that “Russia, Iran and Turkey do not have coinciding goals in regards to Syria and in regards to the region,” and that even though Moscow holds “very good relations” with Ankara, it “does not mean that we have to agree on everything.”
Despite Lavrov’s statements it would appear that fundamental understandings between the three guarantors of the 2017 Astana and 2018 Sochi accords have seemingly widened.
“As a matter of fact, I believe that full agreement cannot be on all issues in relations between any two countries,” said Russia’s top diplomat said somewhat cryptically, adding “If that is the case, then it is probably under pressure.”