Battle for Idlib a test for Western alliance – columnist

The battle for the last rebel-held areas in the northwest Syrian province of Idlib will have a defining impact on Turkey’s future and on world politics because Russia intends to take full control of Syria after ending the country’s nine-year conflict, Turkish journalist Hasan Basri Yalçın said in a column for Sabah newspaper.

Turkey, which has backed rebel groups since early in the conflict, had been cooperating on a peace plan with Russia, the Syrian government’s staunch allies. But the Russian-backed assault on Idlib has threatened to displace millions of Syrian civilians as well as jihadist militants to Turkey, and 19 Turkish military personnel have been killed in bombardment by Syrian artillery and Russian jets this month.

The repercussions of the battle for Idlib will go far beyond the new wave of refugees and heightened security threats, said Yalçın, adding that it would affect Turkey’s relations with Russia, one of its key partners in recent years, and could have a large impact on NATO.

Turkey’s cooperation with Russia extended to important energy deals and the purchase of Russian S-400 missile defence systems that angered its Western allies, but the Turkish government has called on those allies to back it in its defence of Idlib.

“Because Idlib is the end of the stage of the Syrian civil war that has taken place up to now and the beginning of the next phase,” Yalçın said. “It is a significant test for the Syrian regime and Russia’s strategy of gradual advance, and the response they receive will shape their next steps.”

“Russia wants to gain control of all of Syria. Even if it has been willing to make some forms of compromise before, it does not look now like it will stop. As the end nears, it has become more aggressive and less patient,” he said.

This could mean launching offensives against other areas of northern Syria that rebel groups gained control of in the three cross-border military operations Turkey has launched since 2016, the columnist said.

Russia assented to the operation Turkey launched against Kurdish-led groups in Afrin, northwest Syria, in 2018, and came to an agreement to jointly patrol areas of northeast Syria when Turkey launched another offensive last October.

But if the Russian-backed advance is not rebuffed in Idlib, Moscow could be emboldened to support moves by the Syrian government to recapture these areas and then to remove the small U.S. force stationed near Kurdish-held oil fields in the east of the country, Yalçın said.

“With such tensions ongoing, the credibility of NATO if it refuses to act will be dealt a severe blow,” he said.