Can Turkey find humanitarian solution on Idlib before losing all control

The spotlight is on the Syrian province of Idlib but the boomerang effects of Turkey’s failed regional policies are clear. As the Syrian offensive — backed by Russia and discreetly by militia units affiliated with Iran — takes shape against jihadist targets in the enclave, Idlib offers more challenges than opportunities for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s administration.

The offensive could move Ankara closer to losing control of the course of events in the Syrian quagmire.

A summit in Tehran was arranged by Russia and Iran as an extension of the Astana process. The Erdogan administration had no choice but to attend in hopes of insulating itself from the crisis, if not postponing a full-scale offensive.

There is no reason to believe Ankara has any leverage. Russia has long been firm about its intention to clear the area of armed jihadist groups. It has China’s backing for this. Russia and China have large numbers of Chechen and Uyghur jihadists. Media reports say many of the jihadists went to Syria via Turkey, only to be pushed into Idlib when forced to retreat from the Islamic State and al-Qaeda strongholds.

On the eve of the Tehran summit, Turkey took a step that was too little, too late. Ankara designated Tahrir el-Sham as a terrorist group. It is the dominant jihadist group in Idlib and includes elements of al-Nusra Front, an offshoot of al-Qaeda.

For Russia, China and the United States, too, this should have happened long ago. Turkey’s belated move may give it some breathing room in the Astana process but, in the longer run, it will accumulate further risks at the border.

For Syria and its patron, Russia, Idlib is crucial to the endgame. Idlib is at the centre of a strategic junction between Aleppo, Damascus and Latakia. The conquest of Idlib would mark the final phase in restoring Syria’s unity. It would also be the reassertion of Russia’s presence — in all dimensions — in the country.

The logic of Idlib, therefore, slams the door on any further approach by Ankara to the jihadist opposition to Bashar Assad’s regime.

Being severely at odds with its long-time ally the United States has not been helping Turkey. Increasing Kurdish control in north-eastern Syria, along the border with Turkey, was one of the main reasons Erdogan terminated the Kurdish peace process at home three years ago. The decision caused a chain reaction, pushing extreme nationalism and giving Russia and Iran more leverage to contain Ankara. Turkey’s soft spot — opposition to Kurdish aspirations for self-rule — had once again become a problem and this time, almost with paralysing effect.

Turkey appears paralysed as it faces a clash of interests with Russia on the jihadists even while at odds with Washington on the Kurds. Consider the photograph that appeared September 6 of US Army Lieutenant-General Paul Funk with Ferhat Abdi Shahin, top commander of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units.

What happens next? What’s in the offing for Ankara on Idlib?

Its main argument will probably remain that the deconflicting zones be respected. For Moscow, the agenda may be to push Turkey to bilateral talks with Assad. Erdogan may not want a crisis with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Idlib will, and should, boil down to one thing. The United Nations said at least 800,000 people will be affected by hostilities. A siege will leave them no place to flee but Turkey.

Therefore, it may be time for Ankara to abandon all political and military ambitions over Syria and focus on humanitarian dimensions. Erdogan’s dilemma is obvious: Should he mobilise to tackle the potential influx or extend the crisis by militarily intervening in Kurd-controlled Syrian areas such as Manbij?

Turkey’s efforts to host and feed more than 3 million victims of the Syrian war are commendable, especially compared with the shameful insensitivity of some central European governments. Now, Ankara should be encouraged to open its doors further with the promise of help from international organisations.

Idlib could be a trump card for Erdogan when he meets with EU leaders in the coming weeks. In the eyes of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, for example, Erdogan may be the guarantor of efforts to keep Syrian refugees out of Europe.

This would be another watershed for Turkey’s strongman. He could use the looming refugee crisis to open a new chapter with the European Union, normalising relations, which he needs very badly.

However, going by his record, Erdogan may well choose a crisis over a solution-oriented approach. We shall see.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.