Turkish military vehicles arrive to a task area in Idlib, Syria, on October 13. Photo courtesy of the Turkish General Staff Press Office
BEIRUT, Lebanon, Jan. 8 (UPI) -- With Russian air cover, the Syrian Army is rapidly advancing on the Idlib countryside, encircling thousands of Turkish troops and Turkey-backed rebels in the city. Turkish troops were dispatched to the war-torn city last October.
It is unclear whether Syrian forces will stop at Idlib's gates or storm the city, as pro-government media said. If retaken, it would spell the final ejection of the armed opposition from all cities across Syria.
On Jan. 2, government troops captured al-Hawa in the southern vicinity of Idlib, shortly after taking the towns of Ard az-Zour, Anshan and Khuwayn.
Approximately 50 villages have been recaptured in recent weeks and the Russians are eyeing a military airport near Abu al-Duhur, which the Turks had wanted to use as an observation point. A senior military commander from the Turkish-backed Faylaq al-Sham was killed in northern Idlib, reportedly by the Russians.
Russian and Syrian airstrikes have raised doubts about the future of Idlib, which has been firmly under the control of Islamist rebels since mid-2015. Most prominent among them is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a coalition of jihadist groups headed by Jabhat al-Nusra, now known as Fateh al-Sham. Valery Gerasimov, the commander of Russian forces in Syria, called for Tahrir al-Sham's "elimination," saying that would be his top priority in 2018.
This will be easier said than done, given that the majority of Tahrir al- Sham fighters are Syrians, rooted in the villages and towns of the Idlib province. Unlike the Islamic State, which was swarming with Europeans, Asians and Arab warriors, most of al-Nusra's power base is homegrown. When threatened with excessive force, they can just shave their beards and blend with ordinary society. This is especially true in Idlib, which was once an incubator for the Muslim Brotherhood during its military confrontation with then-President Hafez Assad in 1976-82.
After the Russians stepped up their military presence in late 2015, they have been regularly injecting Idlib with thousands of additional fighters from faraway territories, shipping them on green buses with their light arms, under the supervision of the United Nations. The idea was to create a "mini-Afghanistan" in Idlib, led by a Taliban-like regime, marred by inter-rebel fighting. The Russians zoomed in on Idlib, positioning the city as the source of all terror -- a failed state by all accounts, waiting to get annihilated either by the Russians or the Americans or both -- as part of the global war on terror.
Last September, the plan for Idlib was altered by the Russians, at Ankara's request. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had been wanting to send troops to the countryside of Damascus and Aleppo, arguing that they could monitor the cease-fire and serve as a buffer between warring factions. This would give Erdogan a permanent foothold in Syrian territory, under the umbrella of the Russian-imposed cease-fire.
The idea, however, was rejected by the Iranians, who vowed never to give the Turks what they had been denied after opposition forces had refused to accept Iranian peacekeeping troops in Ghouta, the agricultural belt surrounding Damascus.
Tehran agreed to look the other way as Erdogan's forces marched into Idlib province, which borders Turkey, if the Turkish president signed off on increasing Iranian troops around Damascus. The Turkish military move was positioned as part of the international peace-keeping forces mandated by the Astana process.
The Russians, after all, had been tasked with keeping the cease-fire in southern Syria, with more than 1,000 military police, and around Aleppo, with over 600 troops. Turkey hoped to be granted similar honors, arguing that its forces were capable of liberating Idlib from al-Nusra influence, just like they managed to eject IS from Azaz, Jarabulus and al-Bab in 2016.
Since last September, they have been successful, although little fighting took place between the Turks and al-Nusra. Instead, they were escorted out, under Turkish protection, with minimal threat to Turkish lives.
Some claim the recent advancement of Syrian government troops is proof that the agreement over Idlib has ended or collapsed and that a confrontation is looming between Damascus and Ankara, perhaps via Syrian proxies. Others argue that everything happening around Idlib is part of a neatly mapped partition of the country, agreed upon by Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The invisible line that separates the spheres of each leader's political influence runs alongside the Aleppo-Homs Highway, everything west of it is supposedly opposition territory left for the Turks to handle, while all east is designated to return to the Russian and Syrian fold. This is where government troops have been advancing since mid-December 2017.
Complicating matters, however, are two blotches of overlapping land, one in the south for the opposition and one in the north, west of the old Aleppo railway, running deep into regime territory. Nearly everything between the railway and the Homs-Aleppo road is earmarked for the Turks -- at least for now. That could change if the Russian-Turkish detente breaks over Kurdish sovereignty, for example, or any other critical and unresolved issue in the Syrian quagmire.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and author of "Under the Black Flag." He is a former Carnegie scholar and founding chairman of the Damascus History Foundation. This article originally appeared at The Arab Weekly.