The SAA offensive in the province of Idlib is proceeding at such a pace that map makers can barely cope: A map published one morning will be obsolete before sunset on that day.
After having liberated Saraqib, less than 5km from Idlib city, the Syrian forces pushed Northeast along the M5 Highway. Simultaneously, units of the SAA positioned in Aleppo started pushing West and South, again targeting the M5 Highway.
The M5 is important to Syria: It links the country’s capital Damascus to the country’s economic capital: Aleppo. This is the same motorway the Russians focussed their attention on when they entered this conflict in 2015, helping clearing it from Damascus to Hama and Homs.
48 hours ago, only a stretch 18km long eluded control from the SAA. Late last night/early this morning, this number had fallen down to 5km. The Syrian armed forces are also close to the Taftanaz airbase. Damascus hasn’t controlled the M5 Highway or the Taftanaz airbase since 2012!
The rapid collapse of the rebel/jihadi front is of concern to Erdogan. over the past three weeks, he has repeatedly threatened Damascus with military force. Ankara has given Damascus up until the end of the month to withdraw its armed forces back to their starting point outside of Idlib. Considering that the SAA now controls between 45% and 50% of the province, it seems unlikely that Damascus will comply. Another sticking point is that 9 Turkish military outposts have been overrun by the SAA advance and are now isolated.
The situation is bad enough for the pro-Turkish forces that Ankara has been sending regular army units to shore up the front around Idlib city for the past week. All weekend, Turkish army convoys have been seen entering Idlib province toward Idlib city.
A source speaking to The Guardian newspaper spoke of around 900 Turkish vehicles. The SAA is also reinforcing its positions as it advances. Yesterday, such a convoy was filmed by RT and you could clearly see a Buk SAM battery covered by a tarp, in the middle of the said convoy. That Buk is there against a potential Turkish attack: Neither the rebels not the jihadis in the province possess an air force. So is the Turko Syrian imminent?
Erdogan, A Proud Man.
Erdogan is a proud man and he will be tempted to act against the SAA: At the beginning of the conflict, he threw his support behind the Syrian rebels, announcing that he would go pray at the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus after the fall of Assad. Turkey then briefly collaborated with ISIS (oil and historical artifacts trade) before throwing its support behind the various jihadi militias loyal to Al Qaeda operating in Idlib. Turkey has steadily injected pro-Ankara militiamen into the ranks of said militias and has recruited several of those outfits to fight against the Kurds.
Turkey says it needs to control Idlib so that it can resettle the 3 million Syrian refugees currently staying on Turkish soil. The main aim, here, is not as humanitarian as it seems: Turkey wants to resettle a maximum of Sunni Arabs along its border… But that area is traditionally Kurdish! What Ankara wants to do along its whole border is push the Kurdish population away and replace them by more sympathetic Sunni Arabs.
Idlib, then, is very symbolic. It enables Ankara to keep the pressure on both Assad and the Kurds. It also enables Turkey to control an area along its border between two Kurdish enclaves.
Erdogan gambled heavily in Idlib. Losing the province would mean losing his gamble and finding himself on the losing side. It would mean a Kurdish presence along the Turkish border.
It would also mean an estimated additional 1,000,000 Syrian refugees streaming into Turkey: A fair few people living in Idlib are rebels and ex-rebels that refused to surrender to Syrian forces in the previous battle and opted for exile with their family in Idlib instead.
Turko Syrian war will be destructive.
It is unlikely they will accept a Syrian amnesty this time around. There is also the question of the thousands of foreign jihadis present in the province: They have nowhere to go. They can’t go home, they can’t stay in Syria (Syrian amnesty does not apply to foreign fighters and Syrian prisons don’t really have a good reputation)… Turkey has supported them while they were on Syrian soil but it is unlikely Ankara would allow them to resettle on Turkish soil!
So, are Ankara and Damascus on a collision course? They are indeed. Will a Turko Syrian war occur between the two sides? A Turko Syrian war will be devastating and Turkey is the largest ally outside NATO! We will see in the next few hours and/or days.