Syria Weekly: Turkey stands up to regime in Idlib
For the first time in several months, the skies over southern Idlib enjoyed a rare quiet after perpetual barrel bombing from Syrian regime helicopters and repeated Russian air strikes on hospitals was halted.
At least 800,000 civilians have been uprooted in the regime's campaign in western Aleppo and southern Idlib, with refugee camps on the Turkey border at full capacity.
Tens thousands of Syrian refugees are sleeping in the open in northwest Syria, where temperatures have dropped below zero and children have succumbed to the cold.
The brief lull in bombing at the end of the week comes after Syrian rebels downed two regime helicopters, including one on Friday by the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army.
Turkey has also drawn a line and threatened to strike regime aircraft and soldiers, providing hope to millions in Idlib that the horrendous bombardment could soon end.
Whole towns and villages in Idlib have been emptied after waves of Russian and regime bombing and shelling over the past two months, while ruthless Iranian militias and regime fighters have poured northwards and westwards.
The fall of opposition areas in Idlib and Aleppo appeared imminent and the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians hung in the balance until Turkey stepped up its intervention over the past two weeks.
A threat made by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that Turkish forces could shoot down regime aircraft flying over civilian areas in Idlib province has halted the bombing of Idlib.
Turkey is also believed to have provided MAPAD anti-aircraft missiles to Syrian rebels, something that the US has refused to do and could have changed the course of the Syria war.
"Some are saying that Turkey provided the rebels with MANPADs, and we have seen videos showing a missile hitting a helicopter. But we have another story with rebel fighters in the area saying that they used anti-aircraft guns to down the helicopter," said Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based political analyst and researcher.
"The Turks don't want to give any clues if they might be providing the opposition with MANPADS."
Ankara gave Bashar Al-Assad until the end of the February to withdraw its forces from areas captured in Idlib province or face a Turkish offensive, something that regime troops would be unlikely to halt.
Turkey has built-up a huge military force on the Idlib border, ready to cross into Syria to counter the Russian-backed regime offensive.
Ankara has already "neutralised" scores of regime fighters in air strikes over the past week, after deadly strikes on Turkish observation posts.
"There are many opinions regarding this, firstly that Assad would not carry out attacks on Turkish forces without an agreement or direct orders from Russia," Bakeer said.
"Russia has been putting pressure on Turkey to normalise relations with Assad but Turkey has refused. This has been seen with Moscow hosting talks between Turkish and Russian intelligence chiefs."
Attempts by Moscow to see Damascus and Ankara re-establish ties have so-far ended in failure.
Turkey is refusing to allow the regime to recapture Idlib from the opposition or completely abandon rebel groups.
It is also aware of repeated threats by Assad that it will eventually attempt to capture Turkish-controlled territories in northern Syria.
While Turkey and Syria are close to all-out war in Idlib it has also led to the worst diplomatic crisis between Ankara and Moscow since 2015, when Turkish forces shot down a Russian jet after ferocious bombing in northern Syria.
A lack of US support for its NATO ally at the time and harsh economic sanctions on Turkey by Russia forced Ankara to directly seek a resolution to the crisis directly with Moscow.
This included Turkey purchasing the Russian S-400 missile system and worsened the unity of NATO and Moscow and Ankara taking a more collaborative route to the Syria crisis.
This included the 2018 Sochi agreement, halting a previous regime assault on Idlib but its terms have been repeatedly ignored by Moscow.
"The first condition of the Sochi agreement was a ceasefire, while conditions on Turkey reining in extremist agreements in Idlib were much lower. The current offensive is a major breach of Sochi," Bakeer said.
This has forced Turkey to take matters into its own hands and could provide a last chance for the US to rekindle ties with its NATO ally.
"The US has a direct interest in not allowing Iran - who are backing the Syrian regime - to increase their influence in Syria and this provides a golden opportunity to counter this," said Bakeer.
"Turkey is willing to send thousands of troops into Idlib to do this and all the US and Europe have to do is support its NATO ally. The Syrian regime would not stand a chance against the Turkish armed forces and it would end with millions of refugees crossing the border into Turkey."
Bakeer believes that the current offensive also highlights Russia's weakness, in wanting to capture Idlib before US sanctions under the Caesar Act kick-in.
Washington also appears to have pressured the UAE and other states from normalising ties with the Assad regime.
"The UAE's attempts to normalise ties with Assad were blocked by the US, while there was no progress on the ground in Syria, so Russia wanted to shuffle the cards in Idlib," Bakeer added.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also stated this week the US stands by Ankara, following the attacks on Turkish troops. Washington's special envoy for Syria engagement, James Jeffrey, also signalled support for Ankara this week.
"We understand that Turkey is retaliating against regime forces. We are looking to find out how we can help as a NATO ally," he said. "The people of Turkey cannot deal with this disaster alone."
Erdogan is faced with huge domestic pressure for action after the deaths of 13 Turkish soldiers in two weeks, Turkish observation posts in Idlib surrounded by Iran-backed militias, and the possibility of millions of Syrians fleeing to Turkey.
Turkish-controlled territories in northern Syria would likely be the next targets of the regime and there already signs of growing collaboration between Kurdish militias and Damascus.
With thousands of Turkish troops and armour massing on the Syrian border, this could be the last chance to prevent an all-out Assad victory in Syria and help shift Ankara out of Russia's sphere of influence.
"How these Turkish forces will be used depends on how negotiations with Russia go and whether the US supports Ankara," Bakeer said.
"But if Turkey loses this battle of interests then Syria is lost to the regime and Iran."
Syria Weekly is a regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here.
Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab.
Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin