The week of February 24th became for the Turkish government and its al-Qaeda-linked proxies a silver of light in the realm of Assad darkness. Since December 19th, 2019, Syrian government forces have taken control of approximately 2,400km2 in the provinces of Idlib and Aleppo. In the course of the operation, they have repelled several Turkish-led counter-attacks and dealt several painful blows to the Turkish Army. However, towards the end of February 2020, Turkish military efforts finally produced results, and they were important ones.
By the start of the week, the Syrian Army had halted offensive actions east of Idlib city and redeployed most of its well-trained and motivated units from there to the southern part of the province. Troops and equipment of the 25th Special Forces Division and the 4th Armoured Division joined a ground operation to cut off the front salient south of the M4 highway. This weakened the army defense near Saraqib and Turkish-led forces immediately exploited this.
On February 24, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Turkistan Islamic Party, the National Front for Liberation and other al-Qaeda-linked groups directly supported by Turkish artillery, unmanned aerial vehicles and special forces launched an attack on Nayrab. They employed over a dozen battle tanks and Turkish-supplied armoured vehicles. Turkish-led forces entered Nayrab on the same day and consolidated control over the town on February 25. Two battle tanks, four infantry fighting vehicles, a Shilka self-propelled gun, a GAZ truck, a 23mm gun mounted on a truck, two bulldozers and five Konkurs anti-tank guided missiles were seized. On the same day, the Syrian Army shot down a Turkish TAI Anka unmanned combat aerial vehicle.
Then, Turkish-led forces developed their advance towards Saraqib capturing the villages of Salihiya, Afis and entering the town of Saraqib itself. By the morning of February 27, they had gained full control over Saraqib and continued their advance. The M5 highway, which Damascus had officially declared reopened, was once again cut off. In the course of this attack, Turkish-led forces captured a T-90 battle tank, a T-72 tank and several other vehicles. Turkish forces also employed at least 2 MANPADs against warplanes of the Syrian Air Force bombing targets east of Saraqib but failed to down any aircraft.
The fall of Saraqib demonstrated disorganization, an apparent lack of morale and the failure of the fortification efforts by Syrian troops remaining in the area. Pro-government sources also blamed Russia for the lack of close air support during the fighting. At the same time, pro-militant sources reported dozens of Russian airstrikes on their positions. The villages of Dadikh, Jawbas and Kafr Battikh fell into the hands of Turkish-led forces after Saraqib. Al-Qaeda propaganda claims that the goal of the Turkish-led push is to retake Maarat al-Numan. Several counter-attacks conducted by Syrian troops, including the most recent on the evening of February 27, resulted in no gains.
It’s unlikely that the situation can be turned to favor of the Syrians without additional reinforcements from the 25th Special Forces Division and other battle-hardened units. Right now, the Syrian military is redeploying its elite units to the area and preparing for a large counter-attack.
Pro-Turkish sources provide numerous and often conflicting reports on casualties among Syrian forces. If one sums up the claims by the Turkish Defense Ministry on Twitter, one will find that about 500 Syrian troops were allegedly killed or injured in Turkish-led operations. According to other pro-al-Qaeda sources, over 100 Syrian troops were killed in Saraqib alone. The Syrian side does not release such claims, however developments on the ground speak for themselves. On February 26, the Turkish Defense Ministry said that 2 Turkish soldiers were killed and 2 others were injured in a Syrian airstrike. On February 27, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that 3 more Turkish soldiers were killed in Idlib. Overnight on February 28, a series of airstrikes hit a convoy and positions of Turkish forces near al-Bara killing at least 30 Turkish soldiers and injuring at least 30 others. Commenting on the situation, the Russian side emphasized that Turkish personnel were embedded with ‘terrorists’.
It should be noted that the Turkish gains in eastern Idlib took place amid the Syrian Army’s rapid advance to the south. In the period from February 23 to February 28, government troops have taken control of over 30 villages and towns, including Kafr Nabel and deployed within striking distance from al-Barah, the last large militant stronghold on the way to the M4 highway. Turkish-led forces demonstrated no real resistance in the area because they threw most of their manpower and equipment towards Saraqib.
Technically, the Syrian military liberated a much larger area than it lost during the week. However, the loss of Saraqib is a painful strategic setback that undermines the Syrian Army control over the M4-M5 crossroad and limits its maneuverability along the frontline area in eastern Idlib.
Furthermore, the threat of a new larger war in the region is increasing. The Erdogan government demonstrates that it is an active and consistent supporter of al-Qaeda and is ready to pay in blood to protect Turkish-backed terrorists in Idlib and consolidate its influence over Syrian sovereign territory in which it had invaded.