In the next weeks and months, Idlib is set to be front and center once again in world headlines. Not only have the Turkish and Syrian armies engaged in direct clashes since the weekend — with dozens of casualties on each side —ready for what increasingly looks like the final showdown over Idlib, but superpowers Russia and the US have again lined up on either side. Here are some indicators that dramatic escalation is on the immediate horizon.
An impressive, perhaps unprecedented build-up of seemingly endless columns of Turkish armored vehicles and tanks were seen amassing on the border this week:
1) Turkey announced Thursday more soldiers are being deployed to Idlib after already previously amassing troops at the border.
According to Turkey's Daily Sabah:
The Turkish military has dispatched more soldiers and stationed multiple rocket launchers on the Syrian border as it continues to reinforce units and equipment at Turkey's observation posts in northwestern Idlib province.
The rocket launchers were deployed in Hatay province, while commando squads headed to their units in armored vehicles.
2) Turkish tanks, armored columns, and elite commandos are pouring in as state powers are on a collision course:
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has put NATO’s second-largest army on a collision course with Russian-backed forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to try to prevent the fall of Idlib province, Syria’s last rebel stronghold.
The Turkish military ordered hundreds of tanks and armored cars dispatched to Idlib and struck about 170 targets in Syria in retaliation for attacks by Syrian forces that killed at least 12 Turkish soldiers in the northwestern province this month. Russia demanded a halt to attacks on Russian forces and their allies in the northwestern province, who’ve been conducting a months-long advance on the opposition bastion. — Bloomberg
3) Erdogan is erecting new "refugee cities" along Turkish-occupied Syrian border territory, in line with his 'solution' for the refugee crisis at a moment he's also threatened Europe with "opening the gates" if he doesn't receive EU funding to alleviate the burden:
New camps in NW Syria (near the Turkish border) being erected following the displacement of 600,000 civilians in last 2 months— Mark Cutts (@MarkCutts) February 8, 2020
But finding suitable land is a major challenge & more resources urgently needed
Meanwhile airstrikes & shelling continue to devastate towns & villages pic.twitter.com/oPsqymQwzz
4) The United Nations is warning Idlib civilian displacement is now the worst over the nine-year total period of war in Syria.
President Assad is being assisted by Russia in the fight to liberate all of Idlib province and insurgent holdout pockets of neighboring Aleppo from al-Qaeda faction Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. In the process pro-Assad forces are clashing with Turkish troops, which maintains 'observation posts' in and along Idlib provinces border areas.
All of this has created a massive refugee outflow toward the Turkish border:
A wave of displacement that has seen around 700,000 people flee a regime offensive in Syria's Idlib region is the biggest of the nine-year-old conflict, the United Nations said Tuesday.
"In just 10 weeks, since 1 December, some 690,000 people have been displaced from their homes in Idlib and surrounding areas," a spokesman for the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.
"This is, from our initial analysis, the largest number of people displaced in a single period since the Syrian crisis began almost nine years ago," David Swanson said.
Exodus continues. Pictures from yesterday. Biggest single mass displacement since war in Syria began 9 yrs ago— Mark Cutts (@MarkCutts) February 12, 2020
Humanitarians responding but crisis far bigger than current capacity to respond. More resources urgently needed. World failed to prevent exodus. We can’t fail again now pic.twitter.com/7LP77YD8fR
5) The United States said it will "stand with its NATO ally Turkey" after the Syrian and Turkish armies engage in direct clashes, and after Erdogan threatened to begin downing Syrian aircraft.
This brings the world back to a major international proxy war centered on Idlib, as almost happened before (especially in 2018).
US seeks to pivot to Turkey-first policy on Syria - by @sfrantzman— Joshua Landis (@joshua_landis) February 12, 2020
Jeffrey & Pompeo seek to pivot the US back to a Turkey-first foreign policy ion Syria. They hope to jettison their erstwhile Kurdish partners and eastern Syria to rollback Iran.https://t.co/qb8sFOz6pJ
Remember too, that Washington taking a strong "Turkey-first policy" on Syria means the US and Russia could be right back on the war path in Syria, as was the case in prior years.