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4 Mar, 2020 18:42

On the eve of Putin-Erdogan meeting in Moscow, where is the Idlib crisis at?

On the eve of Putin-Erdogan meeting in Moscow, where is the Idlib crisis at?

This is what the situation in the Idlib de-escalation zone looks like right before the meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, scheduled for March 5.

There are currently five Turkish battalion task force teams operating in Idlib, consisting of 4,700 troops, 129 artillery guns and mortars, and 15 multiple rocket launchers (MRLs). The Turkish force’s combat capabilities are bolstered by artillery reconnaissance, electronic warfare units, along with multiple reconnaissance and much-feared combat drones.

Significant losses 

These combat drones caused the most damage to the armored vehicles in Bashar Assad’s army during the offensive – and it is drone strikes that concern the tank units in the government forces most, as they are considered far more dangerous than anti-tank artillery or missile systems.  

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Assad’s army has suffered significant losses during the conflict – hundreds of troops have been killed or wounded. Assad’s allies have also been affected, including Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, who lost 43 soldiers in an attack on an observation post. There have been losses in Hezbollah’s units as well, even though they haven’t engaged in any frontline combat.  

For example, in a matter of days, 191 soldiers from the Syrian armed forces were killed, and another 292 wounded. The army also lost tanks, IFVs and artillery guns and mortars, though experts say most of the damaged hardware can be repaired and used again.

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Turkish military aircraft have violated Syrian airspace over Idlib three times in recent days. The Turkish fighters have engaged in air-to-air combat and have downed two Syrian bombers, two helicopters and, most recently, shot down a Czech-made jet trainer.

Jihadi numbers dropping

Jihadist forces have also suffered major losses. In the last three months, their contingent has shrunk by more than half to around 12-13,000 fighters. Not all of the losses were the result of deaths and injuries; most militants simply ran off. The crucial point is that there are no reinforcements and the numbers keep falling. The terrorists have also lost some of their most experienced fighters and well-trained units.       

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The situation along the line of contact has reached a precarious balance. If Assad’s troops proceeded with their offensive, Turkish artillery and multiple-rocket launchers (MRLs) would immediately start firing back and would support counter-offensives by jihadi militants. Turkey has already started supplying jihadist formations with fairly modern weapons and equipment; including US-made armored personnel carriers, anti-tank missile systems and man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS)

It is still unclear who has the necessary qualifications to operate the MANPADS within the jihadist combat units. Either the Turks have managed to provide adequate training to the militants, turning them into top-level MANPAD operators, or perhaps they are operating the systems themselves, disguised as jihadists. 

Turkish side

As for the Syrian Army, it has managed to destroy 12 unmanned Anka aerial vehicles (UAVs) and seven Bayraktar UAVs in combat operations. 

In the first stage of the offensive, the Syrian Armed Forces didn’t have any effective weapons to take out the Turkish UAVs. Almost all Syrian air and missile defense troops equipped with anti-aircraft missile systems were concentrated around Damascus. When the Pantsir and Buk artillery systems were moved to the combat zone, the situation changed. 

The Turkish UAVs were now used during night only, and tried to stay out of reach of the Syrian anti-aircraft missile systems. Today, Turkish UAVs are mostly countered by Pantsir-S and Buk-M2E anti-aircraft systems. The Buk has proven to be a highly effective weapon, having the highest number of downed Turkish UAVs on its track record.

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The militants continue to attack Russia’s Khmeimim Air Base, but zero deaths and little to no destruction at the base means that the air defense system there is clearly working well. Militants have retreated to 55km away from the base and multiple-rocket launcher attacks have almost completely stopped. Should the Turks provide the jihadis with their MRL systems, that situation could change again.

Refugee exodus

There are currently about 200,000 temporarily displaced persons on the Syria-Turkey border, with 85,000 living in refugee camps: Hazano, Sarmada, Sheikh Hassan, Baskaria, Darkush, and Salkin.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s ‘Operation Olive Branch’ in Afrin in 2018 forced up to 250,000 people (mostly Kurds) to flee the area, while the 2019 ‘Operation Peace Spring’ incursion into north eastern Syria displaced 135,000 people (also mostly Kurds).

Turkey’s policy of resettling Syrian Turkmen in formerly Kurdish territories has already led to a radical change in the ethnic composition in these areas. 

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Assad’s pause 

To proceed with its offensive, the Syria army would have to pause for two or three weeks in order to restore its combat capabilities, replenishing its ranks, weapons and military hardware. 

Syrian forces need to stock up on material, particularly munitions, that have been used up. For that reason, they would no longer be able to liberate the territories that run along the M4 highway by March 5.

Which is why it will most likely be the presidents of Russia and Turkey who will draw the final line of separation in Idlib at their meeting in Moscow.

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