In one of the first, albeit small signs of the de-escalation of violence in the Idlib province of Syria, Russian and Turkish troops carried out joint patrols along the all-important M4 highway.
The northwestern part of Syria has been a bloody, violent place since late last year.
“Within the framework of the Moscow agreement, the first joint Turkish-Russian land patrol on the M4 highway has been completed with the contribution of air and land assets,” the Turkish Defense Ministry said in a statement on Sunday.
The Russians also stated that their troops and armored vehicles took part in the joint patrol. The patrol began from the village of Tronba, which is the farthest point that the rebels fighting against the Syrian government have control of.
Sunday marked the beginning of the 10th year of the civil war, which began as a peaceful protest against the brutal Assad regime. It turned into a huge bloody conflict that brought in Russian, Turkish and American troops after the Islamic State captured a huge swath of territory in the resulting power vacuum. The civil war has decimated the country.
The last bastion of the rebel-controlled territory is in Idlib province. Syrian government troops, with Russian air support, have attempted to hammer the rebel forces and retake the remainder of the country. But the Turkish army, who supports the rebels, began pouring into Syria to stem the tide.
Turkey’s position is that it already houses three and a half million refugees from Syria. Once the Syrian offensive in Idlib province began late last year, it created a humanitarian crisis that the United Nations deemed the worst in the world. Hundreds of thousands have already died. Nearly one million people have been forced to flee Idlib and streamed towards the Turkish border. Russia accused the Turks of exaggerating the humanitarian crisis, and of violating Syrian sovereignty by flooding their troops across the border.
The Turks are unwilling to accept more refugees and blocked them from entering their territory. Refugees live in makeshift camps along the border, and many of them are forced to live in the open.
Turkey began streaming men, materiel, and armored vehicles across the border. It was just a matter of time before Turkey and Syria clashed. Once that happened, the situation quickly escalated. About 60 Turkish soldiers have been killed in the fighting so far. Turkey responded with massive air and drone strikes that have pounded Syrian army troops and created even more casualties. Meanwhile, Russian airstrikes rain down on rebels and civilians alike.
With the situation reaching a critical state, Putin’s government knew that the Turks would crush the Syrian army without massive Russian airpower to hold them at bay. Putin has spent the past several years, trying to pull Erdogan’s government away from the sphere of the United States and NATO. He couldn’t risk this realignment for what would be a losing proposition in Syria.
So, a few weeks ago, the Russians and Turks met in Moscow and hammered out a ceasefire agreement. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, in no uncertain terms, that the Turkish army will react with even more force if either the Syrians, one of the Iranian-led proxy militias, or the Russians violated the terms of the agreement.
So, under the terms of the agreed-upon ceasefire, both Turkey and Russia will establish a security corridor on either side of the key M4 highway, which links Syria’s east and west.
This corridor stretches about four miles to the north and four miles to the south of the M4, which expands Russian’s presence further north into Idlib. This development has been met with disapproval by the rebel forces, who trust the Russians as much as the hated Assad government. Several of the opposition groups have conducted sit-ins to block the Russian troops in the area.
But another fly in the ointment is the Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an armed separatist group that has been linked to al-Qaeda. HTS is not part of the rebel group that is supported by Turkey. They claim that they don’t recognize the ceasefire agreement with the Russians. In the past, they’ve had conflicts with Russian troops.
According to a report from the news media site Al-Jazeera, HTS says it does not want the Russians patrolling along the M4 highway. In the past, Russia has cited HTS’s violence as the reason for attacking areas in Idlib. But the ceasefire, for now, is holding. For the refugees of Idlib, that is not expected to last but it is still a brief respite from the violence that has wracked their homeland.