IDLIB: Turkish military vehicles drive down a road in Syria’s northern province of Idlib. In northwest Syria, regime forces have in recent days chipped away at the jihadist-dominated region of Idlib on the Turkish border after months of deadly bombardment. – AFP

BEIRUT: Clashes between anti-government fighters and regime forces killed 51 combatants on both sides in northwestern Syria yesterday, a war monitor said. Russia-backed regime fighters have for weeks been chipping away at the edges of the jihadist-run stronghold of Idlib-a province that borders Turkey-after bombarding it for months.

But hardline rebels and jihadists yesterday attacked loyalist positions in the south of the bastion, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. “Violent clashes east of the town of Khan Sheikhun broke out at dawn after jihadist and opposition groups attacked regime positions,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said. The attack was led by the Al-Qaeda-linked Hurras al-Deen group and another jihadist faction-Ansar al-Deen-he said. The fighting has killed 23 regime forces and 20 opponents, including 13 jihadists, the Observatory said.

In the southeast of the bastion, eight rebels were killed trying to sneak through frontlines towards regime positions near the Abu Duhur military airport, the monitor added. Regime forces recaptured Khan Sheikhun last week, and have been massing north of the town in recent days as they prepare to push on with their assault. The town lies on a key highway running through Idlib province, and fully recapturing the artery would allow the government to reconnect Damascus to second city Aleppo.

Heavy regime and Russian bombardment has hit areas north of Khan Sheikhun in recent days, in the vicinity of the town of Maaret Al-Noman, the next stop north on the highway. On Monday, regime and Russian air strikes killed 12 civilians in the jihadist stronghold, the Observatory reported. The offensive comes despite a deal signed in September last year by Moscow and rebel backer Ankara to avert a full-blown assault on the Idlib region of some three million people.

The presidents of both countries were set to meet in Moscow yesterday. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham-a group led by Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate-extended its administrative control over the whole of Idlib in January, but other rebel factions remain present. A spike in bombardment since late April has killed more than 920 civilians, the Observatory says, and caused more than 400,000 people to flee their homes, according to the United Nations. The Syrian civil war has killed more than 370,000 people and displaced millions since starting in 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.

Russia, Turkey interests

Meanwhile, a Moscow-backed regime offensive in northwest Syria is undermining an arrangement by Russia and Turkey for the anti-government bastion, but their own interests should prevent a total falling-out, analysts say. Syrian government forces launched a ground offensive against the jihadist-run stronghold of Idlib on the Turkish border on August 8 after months of heavy bombardment. They have since seized the key town of Khan Sheikhun and overran the countryside to its south, encircling a Turkish observation post there.

“Idlib complicates ties between Moscow and Ankara, because their interests there are not the same,” said Russia-based analyst Alexandre Choumiline. “This was already the case before, but they had managed to find compromises,” he added. “Today, there is less leeway.” Damascus and Moscow are trying to eliminate Syria’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which dominates the Idlib region.

Rebel-backer Turkey, on the other hand, is looking to avoid any further escalation that would trigger a massive wave of displacement towards its southern frontier. “Turkey’s position is very weak currently,” said Nihat Ali Ozcan of the Ankara-based Tepav think tank. Last week, government forces encircled a Turkish observation post in Morek after capturing the town and surrounding areas. Days earlier, a regime air strike cut off a Turkish military convoy shortly after it crossed into Idlib en route to Khan Sheikhun.

‘New territorial lines’

The flare-up undermined a deal last year between Russia and Turkey that sought to set up a buffer zone around Idlib to avert an all-out assault by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Tuesday to discuss the escalation in Syria. He will also host Putin and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani for a summit in Ankara on September 16 to discuss the latest developments. But with the latest advances, “Putin and Assad have the advantage against Turkey,” Ozcan said. “They want to go to the meeting to discuss a new map” of control, he said.

A revision of the September 2018 agreement may be on the horizon, but most of its original provisions had never been implemented. Jihadists have refused to withdraw from the planned buffer zone, despite the deployment of Turkish troops around the area. Two strategic highways through Idlib province were never reopened, prompting Damascus to take matters into its own hands. “In so far as there is a solution for Idlib, I expect it will involve both Turkish-Russian negotiations and military violence,” said Aron Lund of the Century Foundation.

Initially, “what we’re looking at is probably just a deal that would bring the fighting to a halt along new territorial lines and with new ceasefire conditions,” the Syria expert added. Damascus is already trying to impose such new territorial lines. Last week, regime forces recaptured Khan Sheikhun, which is located on the Damascus-Aleppo highway. Regime and Russian aircraft have since been pounding the area around Maaret al-Noman, the next stop north along the same road, in apparent preparation for a further ground push, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group says.

‘Dancing around each other’

But analysts say Moscow and Ankara’s interests go beyond Idlib. “Idlib is only a small part” of the Erdogan-Putin relationship, Ozcan said. “The two sides never trusted each other, but there is a political” relationship, as well as economic ties, he said. Lund said: “Moscow wants to influence Turkey’s view of a lot of other things.” These include UN-led peace talks to end the Syrian civil war, as well as “Turkey’s relationship to NATO and trade issues”, he said. Ankara has purchased a Russian S-400 missile defense system, sparking tensions with fellow NATO member the United States. Turkey, meanwhile, might also be hoping for “some form of Russian assistance in handling the US presence in northeastern Syria and the Kurdish groups there,” Lund said.- Agencies