Amid a renewed offensive against the Turkish-allied jihadist militias occupying northern Syria, Russian and Syrian forces have struck out against targets in Idlib Governorate. On Friday, they succeeded in driving rebel forces completely out of Hama Governorate, to Idlib’s south, and have struggled for control over the M5 motorway that passes to the east of the city of Idlib.
On Thursday, 33 Turkish troops were killed in Idlib Governorate in an airstrike, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has blamed on Russian forces. However, the Russian Ministry of Defense has denied that it was a Russian aircraft that carried out the attack. Nonetheless, Ankara has looked to its NATO allies for assistance, and while the alliance has declined to send coordinated aid to Turkey, some members have moved to a more provocative posture.
"The United States is engaging with our Turkish allies and reviewing options to assist Turkey against this aggression as we seek to prevent further Assad regime and Russian brutality and alleviate the humanitarian suffering in Idlib," US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a Friday statement.
Moscow has also sent two missile frigates to the region from its Black Sea Fleet.
Rick Sterling, an investigative journalist and member of the Syria Solidarity Movement, told Radio Sputnik’s Loud and Clear Friday that it was unlikely NATO would respond to Ankara’s calls, but that Damascus would not relent in its bid to reunite the country and evict occupying Turkish forces and their proxies.
“It brings the situation to a new crisis level. I don’t know … if he’s [Erodgan] going to keep pushing it or not. So far, NATO has discussed the issue, Secretary-General [Jens] Stoltenberg issued a statement that - basically it’s verbal solidarity from NATO. Turkey doesn’t have a leg to stand on there. They’re in Syrian territory, they’re arming groups which even they acknowledge are terrorists, so they can’t call on NATO support under Article 5, which is self-protection, because they’re not being attacked, they’re in Syrian territory,” he said.
Sterling described the events leading to the counterattack by Syrian government-aligned forces.
“Just a week ago, Syria opened the M5 highway, the important highway that connects Damascus to Aleppo, and on Wednesday, the major attack was launched on an important town on that highway,” he said. “It’s actually the junction of the M5 and the M4 highway; the town is called Saraqib. The militants captured the town - so they broke the control of the government of that highway, and they killed a bunch of Syrian soldiers in the process.”
“There’s so many conflicting forces here, and Syria is dealing with so many issues,” Sterling noted, from Israel attacking Syrian forces in the south to US forces occupying the country’s east. “But I think their priority right now is to liberate Idlib Province and get rid of the nest of terrorists that keep attacking and preventing them from rebuilding. Aleppo, of course, is the industrial capital of Syria; it’s the industrial powerhouse of Syria - or it was. They need to be able to open the highway, to get commerce flowing to Aleppo, to do rebuilding.”
“As long as the terrorists are able to attack and seize towns and prevent the highway from opening, they’re prevented from doing that. So, their priority right now is to drive the terrorists out of Idlib Province,” Sterling told hosts Brian Becker and John Kiriakou.
Sterling said the numbers circulating about civilians in the media are not credible. “Calling them an exaggeration is an understatement. The other day it was claimed there were 3 million civilians in Idlib Province; it’s nonsense. There’s 20 to 30, maybe 40,000 terrorists, and perhaps 100, or maximum 200,000 civilians, who are basically friends and families of the terrorists. The total population of Idlib Province was 1.25 million before the war began, and most of them left Idlib Province as soon as the fighting commenced.”
“The bottom line is: Erdogan is pushing this. Within Turkey, the third-largest party, which is a major party, the People’s Democratic Party, has spoken out very strongly against this war,” he noted. “It said very clearly that the loss of these  Turkish soldiers is very tragic, but it’s the consequence of the Turkish invasion of Syria, which they are adamantly opposed to. Meanwhile, there’s a tremendous amount of censorship going on in Turkey as the government tries to manipulate the situation. There was a staged protest in front of the Russian embassy in Ankara, and the situation is heating up.”
“The Syrians, at this point, are not going to back down. I think they are going to stand firm that they need to press ahead, they need to recapture Saraqib. The time is critical, it’s a dangerous time, and Erdogan’s a bit of a loose cannon, so it’s uncertain what will happen.”