Syria’s Idlib province causes headache for Turkey

The complicated situation in the northern Syrian province of Idlib is likely to cause further headaches for Turkey.

In May 2017, Russia, Turkey and Iran, the three partners of the Astana/Sochi process to resolve the Syrian conflict, agreed to establish de-escalation zones in Deraa, Eastern Ghouta, Homs and Idlib. The process was successfully implemented in the first three areas, but became bogged down in Idlib.

The main reason is that when opposition militias in the first three zones were encircled by the government forces, they either surrender or opted for safe passage to Idlib the last opposition-held province in the country.

Turkey did not volunteer to assume any responsibility in the first three de-escalation zones, but was interested in Idlib because it is adjacent to Turkey.

Most observers agreed that the armed opposition factions amassed in Idlib were destined to be eliminated one way or another.

Both the Astana Memorandum and the related UN Security Council Resolution detail that the Islamic State (ISIS), the al-Nusra Front, and other groups associated with al-Qaeda, which would include Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), will be kept outside the scope of the ceasefire, meaning these groups can be targeted in military operations.

Now that the Syrian government has suppressed most rebel militias, except for the U.S.-allied Syrian Kurds, it has turned to the armed factions operating in Idlib.

When the Syrian government prepared to launch an Idlib offensive last September, Turkey asked for the operation to be postponed so Ankara could attempt to persuade moderate opposition factions to lay down arms.

Russia agreed to Turkey’s proposal and persuaded Damascus to postpone the operation, leading to the Sochi agreement. Ankara made genuine efforts to disarm moderate opposition factions, but it did not succeed. On the contrary, HTS defeated the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army and expanded the area under its control to almost ninety percent of the province.

All of which has led to this month’s attacks on Idlib by Syrian forces, supported by the Russian Air Force. Last week, bombs fell very close to Turkish Army observation posts.

Turkey’s president and defence minister spoke to their Russian counterparts this week, expressing their concerns about Idlib. It remains to be seen whether any progress can be achieved under the present circumstances, because Russia and Syria are unwilling to postpone a military operation in Idlib indefinitely.

Turkey seems to want to transform Idlib into a safe haven for rebel militias, and Ankara is sure to have a hard time persuading Russia, Syria and the international community to accept such a transformation. The only exception may be Washington, because the United States prefers a weak Damascus at the post-conflict negotiating table.

To further complicate the situation for Turkey, China is interested in the elimination of the Uyghur fighters in Idlib. Uyghurs have close linguistic and cultural relations with Turks, but Ankara’s welcoming of these fighters in Turkey would cast a shadow over Turkey-China relations. At the same time, letting them be killed in Idlib could spur a backlash among Turkish nationalists in the run-up to the June 23 election rerun in Istanbul.  

Turkey’s attitude in Idlib contradicts its oft-repeated commitment of support for Syrian sovereignty, since the concept requires that the Syrian government should not be prevented from extending its control to every inch of its territory.  

© Ahval English

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