The tenuous ceasefire in Syria that was signed by Turkey and Russia is in danger of falling apart as various factions are maneuvering forces for what seems an inevitable resumption of hostilities in northern Syria.
The Syrian army of President Assad is intent on pushing the rebel forces out of their last stronghold in Idlib province. The Turkish army is backing the rebel forces in Idlib. The Russians, who support the Assad regime have provided air support and airstrikes against the rebels but do not want to get into any conflict with Turkey: Russian President Vladimir Putin has been trying to gain influence with the Turks and President Erdogan for several years.
The civilians in Idlib remain stuck in the middle: There are already three and a half million refugees in Turkey, who have fled the civil war; nearly a million more, trying to escape the fighting that has gone on in Idlib since December, are in makeshift camps near the Turkish border.
The Turks have been establishing strong points in key locations around the city of Idlib. They have set up observation posts near Jisr al-Shughur city, in the town of al-Ghassaneyah, and west of Jisr al-Shughur in the area outside of Idlib. The Turkish troops have also established three other military posts in al-Misherfah and Tel Khattab villages near the border with Hama Governorate, south of Jisr al-Shughur.
Their intent is to expand and strengthen the access areas to the northern and western sections of Idlib in an attempt to prevent the Syrian military’s plan to open and secure the vital M4 highway.
The Turks and the Russians agreed to the ceasefire and planned to conduct joint patrols along the area of the M4 but they have had little success in doing so thus far. The first patrol was cut short on March 16 after hundreds of people blocked the road and then climbed on top of the patrolling armored vehicles.
Russia said at the time that the patrol was interrupted by “rebel provocations.” The civilians who blocked the Russian convoy were thought to be loyal to a rebel militia that is neither part of the Turkish alliance nor the Syrian regime. The second patrol, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement, was also cut short due to “security concerns.”
Meanwhile, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Syrian forces launched a missile attack towards al-Bara, Afes, and Kafar Aweed towns in southern Idlib province.
The rebel forces then retaliated by targeting Syrian positions in Saraqib and Kafr Nabl with mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. This exchange was caused when Russian reconnaissance aircraft were seen flying over the area of al-Zawiya mountain in the southern countryside of Idlib.
The Syrian army tried to maneuver a military bulldozer into the area of Saraqib — part of the area that the Russo-Turkish forces were to establish a security corridor in — but the rebel forces destroyed it with rocket-propelled grenades.
The Russians released a statement that rebel forces had broken the ceasefire and had attacked Syrian regime troops.
Other reports surfaced three days ago that stated the Syrians were moving heavy armored forces, consisting of T-72 tanks, into the area around Idlib in preparation for a renewal of the offensive to take the town, despite the ceasefire that Russia and Turkey had signed.
And with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), now perhaps shifting their allegiance more towards Russia, that will add another layer to the powderkeg in Idlib. The YPG is the largest component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), that were fighting for the United States against al-Qaeda and ISIS. With the withdrawal of U.S. forces ordered by President Trump in October, the YPG had been left hanging.
On Tuesday the Turkish Defense Ministry released a statement that six YPG militia members were killed in the eastern Euphrates. The Ministry said the six killed were trying to infiltrate into the “Operation Peace Spring” zone controlled by the Turks and the Turkish-supported rebels in northeastern Syria.
“Six PKK/YPG terrorists who were attempting to infiltrate the Operation Peace Spring zone were successfully neutralized in successful operations of our heroic command,” the statement read.
The statement added that the Turkish operations will continue uninterrupted in order to achieve peace and stability in the region.