Oct 10 2018

Successful Idlib deal could make Erdoğan "sultan" of northern Syria - professor

Turkey’s deal with Russia to prevent an attack on Idlib is the result of careful calculations that could see Presidnt Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s administration work with radical jihadist groups to become the dominant force in northern Syria, Turkish academic and former counter terrorism police chief Ahmet S. Yayla has said in an op-ed published by the Daily Beast.

Turkey signed a deal with Russia in late September that stalled a planned attack by Moscow’s ally, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, from launching an attack on the western Syrian city of Idlib.

Idlib, the last major territory still under rebel control, is home to tens of thousands of rebel fighters as well as millions of displaced Syrians, and the planned attack was seen as a potential bloodbath that would have driven many thousands of refugees and battle-hardened fighters toward Turkey’s borders.

The deal gives Turkey until October 15 to clear all “radical terrorist groups” from Idlib and remove heavy weaponry from a 15-20 kilometre demilitarised buffer zone around the city.

This may prove hard, said Yayla, due to the dominant presence of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a group formed by Al Qaeda affiliates that has reportedly shed its links to Al Qaeda, but still fits the bill of a “radical terrorist group” as described in the deal.

However, despite designating the 10,000 strong HTS as a terrorist organisation in August, Turkey maintains relations with the group, thanks to its history of support for jihadist rebel groups in Syria throughout the conflict, Yayla said.

Moreover, Turkey’s military presence in the region is bolstered by client groups which have agreed to go along with the deal, including the Free Syrian Army and National Liberation Front, boasting forces numbering close to 100,000.

The deal offered to HTS to leave the area will also offer the group an attractive escape route that will save them from a fight to the death with the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian allies, said Yayla.

Besides this, Turkey’s history during the conflict of offering military support, training and intelligence to jihadist groups including Al Qaeda affiliates has won Erdoğan the gratitude and support of many jihadist and Salafist groups, meaning “it would be a mistake to think the promise to relocate HTS will be a struggle to disarm enemies whose roots are in al Qaeda.”

“It’s more like a conversation with fractious allies, and they fit well into Erdogan’s strategic plan,” said Yayla, adding that this plan is to “control the Syrian border region to prevent the expansion of the Kurdish breakaway government, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the political arm of the YPG.”

The People’s Protection Units, or YPG, are Kurdish militias with ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), a group designated as a terrorist organisation in Turkey, where it has fought Turkish security forces in a struggle for Kurdish self-rule for decades.

Turkey captured Afrin, a predominantly Kurdish enclave in northwest Syria, from YPG rule in Operation Olive Branch, which was launched in January this year.

Yayla quoted a PYD former chairman, Salih Muslim, as saying Erdoğan intended to move the hardcore jihadists to Afrin, where he could “destabilise the demographics of the region” and permanently prevent the return of displaced local Kurds.

“If Erdogan can somehow persuade the HTS to agree to his terms and work with the NFL by returning their heavy arms, he will be the conqueror of Idlib. He will rule Northern Syria, including Afrin and al-Bab and with the possibility of Manbij,” Yayla said.