ANKARA: Three weeks after the signing of a cease-fire agreement, Ankara is expected to do its homework to uphold its shaky March 5 deal with the Kremlin on Idlib and to ensure full security along the strategic M4 highway.
After their first joint patrol on March 15 was cut short due to local protests against the presence of Russian troops, the Turkish and Russian military conducted a second joint patrol along the M4 highway on the section of the highway linking the cities of Aleppo and Latakia on March 23.
Again, the route of the second joint patrol had to be reduced over security concerns because of tough local dynamics, with some armed factions trying to block joint patrols along the highway.
“The first priority of Turkey and Russia now is to ensure the security of the M4 highway linking Syria’s east and west and to eliminate any potential risk of attack. Establishing the safe passage along this road is our specific duty right now and we have to fulfill it within the upcoming months,” Aydin Sezer, an Ankara-based Middle East analyst, told Arab News.
Turkey recently established three new military posts in the Jisr Al-Shughour countryside in Idlib, located in the villages of Badama, Al-Najiya and Al-Sainiya.
Extremist factions that are not controlled by Turkey, especially Caucasian and Central Asian fighters, have been harshly criticized for continuing their destabilizing activities in Idlib — recently detonating improvised explosive devices on the route of a Turkish convoy patrolling the village of Sfukhon in Idlib province.
The explosions damaged two armored vehicles and injured two Turkish soldiers on March 24. Ankara did not, however, release any official statement about the injury of its troops.
The attack on Turkish soldiers came just four days after the country’s first reported casualties since the cease-fire of early March. Two Turkish soldiers were killed and another was injured in a rocket attack by radical groups in Idlib.
“The Turkish side pledged in the near future to take measures to neutralize radical extremist groups that impede the movement of columns of joint patrols of the M4 highway in the security corridor,” the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria recently reported.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Damascus on March 23, the same day of the joint patrols with the Turks, for talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad. The visit came just three days after Putin and Assad had a telephone conversation about developments in Idlib.
Turkey’s military is responsible for patrolling up to 6 km deep to the north of the security corridor being set up around the M4 highway, while Russian forces will patrol 6 km deep to the southern flank in the war-torn country’s last rebel bastion. Turkish-backed rebels are also expected to remain in place for not torpedoing Putin-Erdogan agreement of March 5.
As part of the implementation of the Astana de-escalation agreement of 2017, control groups keep monitoring the compliance with the cease-fire conditions and detecting some cease-fire violations in Idlib province.
In the meantime, humanitarian actions are being carried out for the Syrian population with a total of 4,021,4074 tons of humanitarian cargo delivered so far, according to data from the Russian Reconciliation Center for Syria on March 25.
According to Sezer, there are signs of an impending escalation in northwestern Syria that are similar to the incidents in early February, and “the silence from Turkish authorities by not commenting either on any injury or on the implementation of the March 5 deal confirms it.”
While the Assad regime accuses Turkey of backing rebel sabotage of joint patrols in Idlib, some rebel groups, including Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), rejected the Moscow deal. Some other groups such as Hurras Al-Din, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria with a considerable number of foreign terrorist fighters in its ranks, is also seen as a rising threat.
“Turkey is expected to distinguish moderate armed opposition and terror groups in Idlib. If Ankara cannot persuade them to lay down arms, it has to enter into a fight to meet the commitments under the Moscow deal. What Russians expect is the total restoration of order in these territories. Therefore, it is early to anticipate a definite success from the Turkish side,” Sezer said.
Last month at least 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in a single attack by Russian-backed regime forces. During February, 60 Turkish soldiers died in Idlib.