There is a lull on the Syrian front for the first time in recent days – and this is a direct result of talks between the leaders of Russia and Turkey. What is the situation on the front lines recorded by the Protocol signed after the talks, what was not achieved in Syria by the Turkish army, and why does Assad have every reason to be happy?
A truce has come into force in the Syrian province of Idlib, according to the Russian – Turkish Protocol signed in Moscow the day before.
The intensity of the fighting has actually decreased dramatically. Mainly because the Syrian, Russian, and Turkish aviation and artillery have stopped working. Sporadic firefights are still continuing, especially since both Syrians and Turks, and especially jihadist fighters will need time to make up for their losses and realize the new reality.
And the new reality is that the winter campaign 2019/2020 ended with a complete victory for the Syrian government forces with the support of the Russian aerospace forces. The victorious military results for the Syrians are actually recorded in the short “Moscow Protocol”, which contains more unsaid than recorded on paper.
First, the days – long and very bloody fighting for Saraqib and its environs ended with the establishment of government forces ‘ control over the M5 highway (Damascus – Hama-Aleppo). The militants lost even the possibility of fire control over the road, not to mention physically. The two main cities of Syria now have a strong connection, which fundamentally changes the political balance of forces. The M5 highway is not even mentioned in the Moscow Protocol. It actually remained for the Syrians simply as a result of military actions. In other words, the main and main goal of the winter military campaign has been fully achieved.
Second, by default, the Protocol captures all the results of the winter campaign. As stated in the Declaration following the talks between Putin and Erdogan, it was decided to “stop all hostilities along the existing line of contact.” That is, the territory of the “Idlib reserve” (aka ” de-escalation zone») reduced by a third. The number of liberated localities is approaching 200. The city of Idlib proper is just over 10 kilometers away in a straight line. But initially, the Turkish side demanded that Damascus withdraw back to the first line of the so-called Turkish observation posts, that is, to return to the configuration of the front at the beginning of December last year. Third, the Turkish side undertakes to unblock the M4 highway and organize joint patrols along with it with the Russian military police in accordance with the principle that works in Kurdistan. The M4 (not the M5) highway is directly mentioned in the Moscow Protocol, and along with it the Turkish side, with the assistance of Russia, undertakes to organize a demilitarized zone of six kilometers on both sides of the road. That is, a 12-kilometer ” security lane “should cut the” reserve ” in half.
The appearance of the M4 highway in the text of the Russian-Turkish Protocol is the main surprise following the talks between Erdogan and Putin. Many even did not believe their eyes, thinking that a mistake had crept in and we are still talking about the M5. But the text clearly states that the highway will be unblocked from Tromba (two kilometers West of Saraqib) to ain al-hawra, which is already in the province of Latakia.
The M4 highway (Latakia – Aleppo via Jisr al-Shugur and Saraqib) was for the Syrian government army the second main goal of the winter campaign.
In fact, the SAA did not achieve it, but the rapid advance through the al-Gaab valley made this goal achievable. In fact, Turkey was supposed to unblock it under the Sochi agreements but did not lift a finger. Now we also need to create a 12-kilometer security corridor. Since the Syrian government forces did not reach the M4 highway at the time of signing the Protocol, it could be ignored.
If the M5 highway is a legitimate trophy, then unblocking the M4 is a diplomatic victory. Or it demonstrates the weakness of the position of the Turkish side, from which Erdogan came to Moscow. If the Turks had the ability to hold the M4, they would fight for it as for Istanbul, because the loss of this route will mean in the future a complete defeat of the jihadist groups and Turkish proxies in Idlib. In addition, a clear deadline has been set for the Turks to clear the highway and the 12-kilometer corridor: March 15.
Of course, this does not mean that tomorrow or even after March 15, traffic on the M4 will immediately resume, at least in the form of convoys. The highway passes directly through the large city of Jisr al-Shugur, which is considered the informal “capital” of jihadist gangs consisting of immigrants from the former USSR and other radical foreign fighters. Hayat Tahrir al-sham, to which these detachments are formally subordinate, did not recognize the Moscow agreements and the truce. In the operational plans of the government forces, Jisr al-Shugur is listed as the largest target.
Now, after regaining control of the M5, physical control of the M4 has lost, for example, economic or social significance, and has become only a military and political goal.
Jisr al-Shugur is irritated by the presence of all sorts of “Fighters of Turkestan”, Uighurs and terrorist groups from the Caucasus. In addition, the Syrian General staff considers the M4 highway a natural cut-off line, which can be used to start cleaning up the Idlib urban agglomeration. If the Moscow Protocol is implemented in full, it will greatly ease the situation and fix the positions and aspirations of the CAA on the ground.
Fourth, the Turkish “observation” posts that remain in the deep rear of the government forces lose their meaning. Already in the morning, there were rumors that some of them (there are eight of them in total) may simply be withdrawn. And although Erdogan claims that all of them will be preserved, in the end, he will have to withdraw them, since the Turkish posts are completely blocked, and their supply can only be carried out with the help of the Russian military police. Russians are ready to carry porridge and water to the Turks somewhere in Murek, but not indefinitely. No one touches the Turks, but they have nothing else to do there.
Until December last year, Turkish posts recorded Ankara’s claims and its “participation” in events and even Ankara’s “guarantees” for Idlib. Now it’s a phantom. Erdogan has won the right to respond if the Syrians fire at Turkish units, but practice shows that the SAA is not the first to attack the Turks.
The position of the whole division, which the Turks introduced in parts into the Idlib urban agglomeration, remains controversial. Nothing is said about this in writing, but Erdogan signed the phrase about the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria. That is, legally, it does not have the right to keep so many troops in Idlib.
If you evaluate all this in General, then in military terms, the “Moscow Protocol” means fixing the defeat of both militants of various ideological orientations and the Turkish contingent. The front line is fixed at the maximum peak of the SAA’s advance into the “reserve” (except for Nayrab, but this is already a detail), and unblocking the M4 highway increases the “volume of victory” due to what was not achieved on the ground. The quiet evacuation of Turkish observation posts in the interior of Syria will additionally mean the restoration of sovereignty over a part of its territory that was previously held by the Turks.
All that Erdogan could afford in response was to defiantly not call Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by name in his speech, each time using the abstract word “regime”.
In addition, the Turkish side will be forced to stop provocations on the Greek border and stop rampant hype on “millions of refugees”. For this, Moscow should say a big thank you to Greater Europe.
There is every reason to believe that the current situation on the fronts – the actual separation and the truce – has every chance to last at least until the summer. The SAA will all this time make up for losses, practice new tactics and pull up air defense forces to the front line.
How Ankara will survive all this is unclear. Erdogan will have to make a lot of effort to explain what is happening to his voters. The blitzkrieg in Idlib failed, but there was a lot of talk in Ankara over the past two weeks, including promises to “go to Damascus” and avenge every Turkish soldier who died. The only thing that Ankara has managed to achieve with its largest (after us) army in the NATO bloc is to preserve the greatly reduced size of Idlib.
Some saw the trolling of Erdogan by Russia in the fact that part of the negotiations in the Kremlin took place in a hall decorated with a statue of Catherine the Great and a picture with a plot from the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-1878. This is a pure accident, no one planned anything terribly symbolic in this, and the Turkish side is unlikely to pay attention to it. I wasn’t up to it. But the result speaks for itself: the Moscow Protocol sealed the victory of the SAA in the winter campaign, Russia did not reduce its support for Damascus, and Turkey was forced to make additional and very serious concessions.