The operation began in late December, liberating dozens of villages before a ceasefire was agreed to on January 12, intended to lead to new negotiations between Russia, whose military supports the Syrian army, and Turkey, whose military supports Tahrir al-Sham and other jihadist rebel militias occupying Idlib Governorate. However, operations resumed just days later following repeated violations of the ceasefire by Turkish proxy forces.
Some areas of the province have been controlled by rebel forces since as early as 2012, but Idlib itself, an ancient city of 165,000 people, was captured by the al-Qaeda-backed Jaish al-Fatah in March 2015. Turkey’s forces entered the region in 2017 in support of its proxies in Operation Euphrates Shield, fighting both Daesh and the Kurdish YPG militias, and again in early 2018 under the Operation Olive Branch invasion, destroying the Kurdish enclave of Afrin and pushing as far south as Hama Governorate.
Subsequent Syrian Arab Army offensives in 2019 have pushed Turkish-allied forces back into Idlib Governorate, leading to the present situation.
Peter Ford, the former UK ambassador to Syria, told Radio Sputnik’s Loud and Clear Wednesday it was “another milestone on the way to the complete liberation of Syrian territory of jihadi forces and foreign forces,” noting Maarat al-Numan is the third-largest town in Idlib Governorate and occupies a strategic location on the M5 highway, a vital artery that links Damascus to Aleppo and points beyond.
“The next operations are likely to focus on other areas north of Maarat al-Numan for the government to restore complete control over the M5,” Ford told host Brian Becker. However, he noted the highway was supposed to have been freed for passage under the ceasefire agreement in September 2018 with Russia, Turkey and Iran that established the de-escalation zone around Idlib in the first place.
“The Turks have simply failed to live up to their commitments,” Ford pointed out. “They have failed to push the jihadis back from this strategic highway. Now the Turks are complaining that Russia is violating the agreement, but the truth is that Turkey has not fulfilled its commitment. So the Russians have helped the Syrian army to take control themselves.”
Ford predicted that Turkey planned to occupy the northern territory of Syria “for a period extending into years, but not to the geographical extent that it has been present up to now.”
He noted the existence of “more than a dozen” Turkish army garrisons around Idlib Governorate, some of which are now “marooned behind Syrian Arab Army lines, and their fate is going to be part of an upcoming wider negotiation.”
“But almost inevitably, the Turkish military presence will be limited going forward to a narrow strip alongside the Turkish-Syrian border, including the so-called ‘safe zone,’ which the Turks claimed to set up when US forces were persuaded to withdraw from that northern border strip” in October 2019.
Ford said the situation might shape up like what happened in Lebanon in the 1970s when Israel occupied the southern portion of the country, setting up a “Free Lebanese Army,” later called the “South Lebanon Army,” in an attempt to legitimize its rule and deputize part of the duties of occupation to local proxy forces. The FLA was eventually forced to disband in 2000, shortly after Israeli forces withdrew from Lebanon.
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