TURKEY GEARS UP FOR COUNTER-OFFENSIVE IN SYRIA
Dr. Can Kasapoglu, Security and Defense Studies Program Director
Emre Kursat Kaya, Research Fellow
Adalat Raimova, Research Assistant
- As of February 12, 2020, Baath regime forces have taken full control of the strategic M5 Damascus-Aleppo highway for the first time since 2012.
- Detachments from the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (formerly Free Syrian Army) started a counter-offensive towards Saraqib. The situation between Saraqib and Idlib is highly fluxional. Control over the town of al-Neirab on the M4 highway has changed several times between the regime and the opposition in the last few days.
- The opposition forces shot down a Mi-17 helicopter of the Syrian Arab Armed Forces between near al-Neirab. With this attack, the opposition showcased its MANPADS capabilities.
- The US expressed firm support to Turkey. Notably, the US Special Envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, gave a statement in Turkish in which he called the Turkish troops killed by the regime ‘our martyrs’. Turkey’s Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has also asked for support from Turkey’s NATO allies.
A Mi-17 helicopter was shot down by the armed opposition around al-Neirab.
Turkey’s New Game Plan
- At the time of writing, President Erdogan addressed the members of his ruling Justice and Development Party. In his speech, the president explained Ankara’s stance as to the Baath regime’s advances and the Idlib conundrum, as summarized through bullet points below:
- Turkey will do everything in the air and on the ground to push regime forces back to the limits agreed in the Sochi Agreement.
- Turkey will not allow any provocations by any group in and around Idlib.
- Turkey will target the Syrian Arab Army anywhere in Syria in case of any harm done to the Turkish forward-deployed personnel.
- Syria’s stability, clear of dictatorship and terrorism, remains one of Turkey’s top national security issue in the 21st century.
Open-Source Intelligence Analysis
- Having secured control over the M5 highway, Assad’s forces are likely to concentrate their offensive through three axes as illustrated below: (1) Arihah on the M4 highway; (2) Kafr Nabl, near Maarat al-Numan; (3) the Kafr Nouran-Darat Izza axis, in the north of Idlib.
Potential regime offensive routes and towns targeted by Russian Aerospace Forces. Map courtesy of LiveuaMap.com.
- A Turkish-backed SNA counter-offensive halted the Syrian Arab Army advance towards Arihah. Clashes now intensify in al-Neirab. Turkish heavy armor has been supporting the opposition campaign in this front.
- Kafr Nabl remains an alternative route for the regime’s assault on Jisr al-Shugur. So far, we monitored limited ground offensive by the Syrian Arab Army in this front. However, the Russian Aerospace Forces (RuAF) has carried out intensive airstrikes on Kafr Nabl.
- The RuAF has also targeted tactically important positions in the north of Idlib in an attempt to cut the lines of communications between the western Aleppo and Idlib-city fronts. The Russian aircraft have predominantly targeted the towns of Kafr Nouran, al-Atarib, and Darat Izza.
- At the time of writing, the Syrian Arab Army’s principle combat units have not been deployed for an offensive to control the abovementioned towns as intensive clashes continue around western Aleppo.
- Our open-source intelligence review suggest that Assad’s forces are now facing battle-hardened groups in multiple fronts, such as the Kavkaz fighters in Khan Asal and the Turkistan Islamic Party in the western Aleppo. The latter dominates Jisr al-Shugur too.
- The risk of an uncontrollable escalation between the Syrian Arab Armed Forces and the Turkish military is growing. While Ankara flexes its muscles to reverse the Baath regime’s momentum, Assad’s forces continue to advance in key fronts. In the meanwhile, the Russian Federation has actively carried out airstrikes. The Kremlin’s stance is far away from brokering a ceasefire.
- The regime has deployed its elite and praetorian units for the battle of Idlib. These sectarian formations are likely to cause additional problems. Up until now, we have observed provocations mostly in the Idlib front. However, the western Aleppo axis also deserves attention. Maher al-Assad’s 4th Armored Division, along with the Shiite militia including the Lebanese Hezbollah paramilitaries, operate in this sector.
- Recent developments in the battleground showcased boosted anti-tank guided missiles (ATGM) and short-range air defense capabilities at the armed opposition’s arsenal. While this can slow down the regime’s advance, the transfer of advanced arms to the Idlib region is likely to cause grave concerns among Russian military planners.
- President Erdogan’s highlighted Ankara’s will to confront both the regime and the terrorist groups at the same time. The latter policy aims at offering additional assurances to Moscow. However, the Turkish administration’s call for a regime withdrawal back to the Sochi Agreement status quo cannot be implemented in the absence of a major military campaign. In the coming days, a Turkey-backed counter-offensive attempt remains likely. The Turkish Armed Forces enjoys clear superiority over the Syrian Arab Army. Yet, without adequate close-air-support, a ground campaign to repel the regime forces would be very risky and can lead to heavy casualties. Russian control of the Syrian airspace looms large as the main hindrance to Turkey’s counteroffensive plan.