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In Syria’s ravaged Idlib, Russian airstrikes underscore wider strategies in region

Syrian government forces are pictured after taking control of the Rashideen al-Rabea area in Syria's Aleppo province on Feb. 11. (AFP/Getty Images)

MOSCOW — Here's one take on Syria: "On the whole, the situation in Syria has stabilized considerably. Peaceful life is returning to the country. Its economy and social life is being restored."

That was from the Russian Foreign Ministry, only conceding a few tense hotspots, in its Jan. 23 briefing.

Here’s another take, from U.S. special envoy for Syria James F. Jeffrey, last week: “We think that this is an extremely dangerous conflict. You see the problems right now in Idlib. It needs to be brought to an end. Russia needs to change its policies.”

Russia’s rosy depiction of Syria is in stark contrast to the dystopian images from Idlib — the smoking ruins of bombed-out homes and displaced people forced to flee. Families weep over the charred remains of their dead, killed in bomb attacks by Syrian or Russian planes.

The Syrian regime is determined to wipe out the last stronghold of rebel resistance in Idlib province, in Syria’s northwest bordering Turkey. And Russia has given the offensive its full support, through airstrikes.

Moscow’s goal is not just backing an old friend, Syria. It’s also about projecting Russian global power against NATO, all the while juggling President Vladimir Putin’s complicated friendship with another like-minded authoritarian, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

On Feb. 13, relief organization Save the Children filmed drone video over an informal displacement camp in northern Idlib, Syria. (Video: Save the Children)

Russian and Syrian warplanes have hit civilian targets such as hospitals, bakeries and markets, according to observers. The strategy, they say, seems calculated to drive civilians out, depopulating towns and villages, so that the Syrian military can sweep through unchallenged.

The population, many of whom have fled their homes once or twice before during Syria’s long civil war, are fleeing toward the Turkish border. But they are blocked from entry, leaving them stranded, forced to find shelter in unfinished buildings, abandoned schools or under trees in the freezing winter.

The toll on civilians is devastating. But neither this, nor Western outrage, appears to shift Russia’s military calculus, according to Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, of the Jamestown Foundation.

“The Russian military says their attacks are precise, that no civilian was hurt,” he said. “But, of course, everyone understands that that’s hogwash.”

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Syria expert at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Russia and Syria now seem committed to a military advance, which may leave a mere sliver of land along the Turkish border for rebels and the 3 million Idlib civilians. Another part of the offensive, she said, appeared intent in breaking their spirit by creating misery and fear.

“Their track record throughout this war has demonstrated this time and time again. I don’t think they care about civilian casualties and, at times, they even find them useful for their policy of purposeful depopulation of the areas of the front lines,” Tsurkov said.

Idlib could become the worst humanitarian crisis in Syria’s civil war

Aside from a close alliance with Syria going back many decades, Russia’s main strategic interest is two crucial military bases: the Hmeimim air base and the Tartus naval base, giving it a prized military foothold on the Mediterranean Sea and the doorstep of NATO member Turkey.

“The Kremlin has a much wider view than the internal Syrian petty infighting,” Felgenhauer said.

Most crucial is Hmeimim air base, which provides air cover for the Russian navy in the eastern Mediterranean. Protecting those means securing the rule of Russian ally and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, he said.

“That’s the main driving point for Russia,” Felgenhaur said. “As a major strategic geopolitical asset, Hmeimim should be safe from any rogue forces. These two bases are projecting force out of Syria into the Mediterranean but from the Russian point of view, they should have a secure perimeter.”

Russia’s support for Syria’s drive to regain territory in Idlib risks jeopardizing another strategic prize for Moscow: its attempt to build closer ties with Turkey.

The bonds between Putin and Erdogan have driven a wedge between Turkey and its main NATO ally, the United States. And that rift has further empowered Russia as the dominant player in Syria.

Idlib is another test for Turkey and Russia. Erdogan’s government will not easily accept an enclave of several million desperate, impoverished people on its border, because of the risk that large numbers would find their way across, Tsurkov said.

Turkey has accused Russia of violating their 2018 agreement, signed between Putin and Erdogan in the Russian city of Sochi, that was intended to create a demilitarized zone between Syrian government forces and opposition fighters.

But Russia has also charged Turkey with breaching its obligation under the deal to rid the area of extremist militias such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a former al-Qaeda affiliate that is now the biggest opposition fighting group in Syria. The Syrian government, meanwhile, was to be given access to the strategic M5 highway, which links the capital Damascus to the major city of Aleppo.

Although Turkey dispatched troops to establish observation posts along the zone, other aspects of the deal, including the removal of extremist fighters, were never implemented.

Last April, Syrian government forces launched an offensive to take back the area, culminating in the recapture by the government forces of the M5 highway earlier this week.

Opinion: Idlib is an inferno. There are no good solutions left.

Syria and Russia argue their advance was in response to attacks by terrorists.

“The most important thing we are talking about is the fight against terrorism which the armed forces of the Syrian Arab Republic are leading, on Syria’s territory,” said Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, on Thursday.

The crisis has escalated sharply in recent days. Erdogan demanded that Russia stop Syria’s advance and issued an ultimatum that Syria withdraw to 2018 positions by the end of the month.

With the strategic M5 route now back in government hands, there is a chance Russia and Turkey will again strike a deal to de-escalate, analysts say. Neither Putin nor Erdogan has an interest in a complete breakdown in their relationship, they say.

The danger that the conflict could escalate further remains, however.

The Syrian army — now bolstered by an influx of Iranian-backed Shiite militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere — has shown no sign that it is prepared to halt its advance.

“I think Turkey is in over its head in Idlib. … It has placed its forces in a highly vulnerable position,” Tsurkov said. “They’re sitting ducks.”

As the stakes grow higher, Russia’s calculation seems to be that Erdogan will back down.

“The positions of both sides are drastically incompatible,” Felgenhauer said. “There’s a belief in Moscow that Erdogan cannot be serious, that he cannot risk a confrontation with Russia and will collapse if we put enough pressure on him.”

“But if he doesn’t?” he added. “That may be a problem.”

Putin had significant leverage over Erdogan, said Soner Cagaptay, a Turkey analyst and author of “Erdogan’s Empire: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East.”

Russia has provided Turkey with military weapons and does not press Erdogan over human rights and others issues like some of Turkey’s Western partners.

In Libya’s ongoing battles, Moscow and Ankara are backing opposite sides. Turkey, with financial and strategic interests in Libya, badly wants Russia to dial back its intervention in the conflict.

“Putin has now made Turkey so dependent on him,” Cagaptay said. “He is a 3-D chess player.”

Sly reported from Beirut and Fahim from Gaziantep, Turkey.

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Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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