By Can Kasapoglu
- Can Kasapoglu is the director of the Security and Defense Studies Program at the Istanbul-based independent think-tank EDAM.
ISTANBUL (AA) - On Aug. 19, 2019, the Syrian Arab Air Force targeted a Turkish military convoy heading to the observation post in Morek, northwest Syria. The Baath regime’s aggressive intervention to halt the convoy, a reckless provocation indeed, was not perpetrated by a rogue unit or undisciplined paramilitaries, nor was it a sporadic act. In essence, it was a part of the Syrian Arab Armed Forces’ all-out offensive in Idlib, which could soon trigger a humanitarian catastrophe. Besides, as Assad’s forces continue to harass forward-deployed Turkish contingents, the Astana process is now facing a significant test that could seal its fate.
- Dangerous tactical flashpoints popping up
Open-source intelligence suggest that the Syrian Arab Army has fully encircled Khan Shaykhun, a critical chokepoint along the M5 highway, and at the time of writing, detachments from the Russian-backed elite Tiger Forces have entered the town. From a military standpoint, having recently captured Khan Shaykhun, the Baath regime’s forces would probably aim at advancing to Maarat al-Nu’man in the up north, another choke-point along the M5 highway. For some time, Russian air bombardment has already been focusing on the areas surrounding the town. In the meanwhile, the Turkish convoy, which initially headed to the observation post in Morek, has set up a temporary defensive contingent around Hesh, a town standing right between Khan Shaykhun and Maarat al-Nu’man. Thus, a careless offensive or unwary fires by the Syrian Arab Army could lead to spiraling escalations.
The Turkish observation post in Morek remains another tactical flashpoint to keep an eye on. The Syrian Arab Army’s swift maneuvers have cut-off Morek’s lines of communications, and isolated the contingent. While the Turkish troops manning the outpost have not come under any attack so far, keeping the logistics route open is a grave concern for Turkey.
- Syrian push into Idlib: Humanitarian crisis in the making
The international community should grasp the very fact that an unchecked regime push into Idlib is likely to trigger one of the biggest catastrophes of the Syrian war ever. As I previously wrote  for Anadolu Agency: “the Baath regime, and its military arm, the Syrian Arab Armed Forces, are not preparing for a fight to clear Idlib from armed non-state actors, including terrorist organizations. This objective, if there is such an objective in the first place, remains secondary to the primary goal of forcing the Sunni inhabitants out and depopulating the province”.
Mathematical models used in military sciences show that stability operations in low-intensity conflict zones demand some 20 to 25 security personnel per 1,000 inhabitants. Simply put, the Syrian Arab Army cannot permanently deploy some 60,000 troops to control the northwest of the country, hundreds of kilometers away from the capital Damascus.
Furthermore, the Syrian Arab Army’s operational record hitherto has revealed very brutal examples of de-population. A number of top generals of the regime have openly spoken their minds and told that the Syrian refugees who left their homes should never come back. The regime’s problematic legislations also serve this end. In April 2018, the Assad regime enacted Law 10, which slates an area for reconstruction if the owner does not establish proof of ownership within a year or does not appear on official documents.
Finally, one should keep in mind that the regime forces deployed in the area of operations were hand-picked from a sectarian pool. The units are commanded by hardliner generals with long lists of war crimes.
All in all, the forthcoming regime offensive could displace millions of people. This should worry not only the Turks, but also the West. Turkey cannot digest more en masse flows from Syria; as simple as that.
- Astana process at risk
With the Baath regime seemingly intent on setting a precedent in Morek and extending it to all Turkish military contingents surrounding Idlib – and, more ambitiously, even to broader Syria – the time might soon come for Ankara to send a strong off-limits signal to the Syrian Arab Armed Forces. Geopolitically, Ankara cannot allow Assad’s military to encircle the Turkish contingents and then force them to withdraw.
As the events unfold in the battleground in dizzying speed, the ‘cognitive battle-space’ also seems very complicated. In the social media, a number of pro-regime propaganda accounts – some giving the impression of being embedded to the Syrian Arab Army concerning the content of their posts – have been openly threatening the Turkish observation posts, which are there as a result of the Astana process.
One thing is clear, though. Turkey’s public opinion might not be on the same page regarding all the policy decisions in Syria. However, when it comes to the Turkish troops’ lives, things would change. The safety of the country’s servicemen becomes a national priority. In the event the Baath regime opts for testing the waters through opening direct or indirect fires on the observations posts, Ankara will have to give a very harsh response. As a matter of fact, neither the Turkish foreign office nor the defense ministry signaled any step-back from the forward deployments in Syria.
The Syrian Arab Army’s dangerous enterprise against the Turkish contingents could seriously harm the Astana process, as the Baath regime provokes Ankara to respond militarily. The Turkish administration has so far adopted a sober approach and resorted to diplomatic engagement with the Russian Federation, the results of which remain to be seen in the forthcoming days.
As the events unfold, two clear facts are becoming clear. First, having harassed the Turkish observation posts and convoys, Assad’s forces have endangered the entire Astana process. Second, if Gen. Maher al-Assad’s 4th Armored Division or Gen. Suheil al-Hassan’s Tiger Forces were to attempt a sectarian cleansing in Idlib, it would not be Turkey’s problem alone; rather, all of Europe would inevitably have to bear a very consuming burden.
* Opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu Agency.