Turkey and the Idlib conundrum

On August 30, the United Nations' Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura urged Iran, Russia and Turkey “to try to avert massive military escalation in Idlib.” Mistura was speaking ahead of an impending Syrian regime assault on the northwestern province, a move he believes has the potential to create a “perfect storm” that could have adverse effects on the wider region.

These three countries worked on the Astana talk's de-escalation zones, which sought to bring an end to the Syrian conflict by arranging long-term ceasefires in key flashpoints across the country. Ultimately, however, they were cynically used by Damascus and its Russia backer to “sequence” their offensives against anti-regime forces, most recently in the East Ghouta and Daraa regions this year. The only such zone left of any significance is Idlib, where the Turkish Army has established 12 observation posts which ring the province. Turkey solely controls the Idlib de-escalation zone.

Russia and Iran are dissatisfied by the fact that jihadists continue to operate in the vicinity of that zone. Last October, the lead jihadist group in Idlib, Haya't Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) even escorted Turkish military vehicles into the province when Turkey began establishing its posts there. Ankara in turn is irked by the aforementioned way in which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia exploited the tripartite agreement.

Also, Turkey is the only one of these countries which does not want to see the regime prevail in Idlib. Russia insists that it and Damascus need “to wipe out these terrorist groups” remaining in Idlib while Iran, Assad's biggest supporter, also insists that the province “must be cleaned out.”

 “Turkey is at zero hour to make a decision on what it plans to do in Greater Idlib,” Nicholas Heras, a Fellow at the Center for a New American Security's Middle East Security Program, told Ahval News.

“The easiest path for Turkey to take is to strike a deal with Russia that will keep the Turks in control of Afrin and the Euphrates Shield zone and in return would give Russia the authority to act in Idlib,” he added. “Russia is offering that deal to Turkey now and from the cold-blooded view of Turkish national security that deal works for Turkey.”

In Idlib, HTS has been the predominant group since it defeated the Turkish-backed Ahrar al-Sham group in July 2017. Essentially HTS was previously the al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra, a group so notorious that U.S.-Russian brokered ceasefires in Syria two years ago explicitly excluded that militant group alongside Islamic State.

“The world is looking to Turkey to save the province from a terrible humanitarian crisis,” Professor Joshua Landis, a noted Syria expert and the Director of the Middle East Studies Department at the University of Oklahoma, told Ahval News.

“Turkey will need to come up with a workable plan for dissolving or displacing the militant Islamist militias such as HTS,” Landis noted. “How that can be done is a mystery.”

While U.S. President Donald Trump has warned Damascus not to “recklessly attack” Idlib, his threats, Landis pointed out, “have not been convincing nor connected to any penalties, so Turkey cannot rely on Washington to discourage a Russian and Syrian offensive on Idlib.”

Landis also highlighted that neither the Americans nor Europeans “can be counted on to give refuge to militias that they have funded and supported in the past.” This leaves Turkey “alone to negotiate with Russia and Syria and mediate between them and the scores of militias that are holed up in Idlib.”

Since it began setting up its observation posts in Idlib back in October 2017 Turkey has not focused on dealing with the HTS threat but instead focused its efforts on combating the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), most notably by invading the northwest Kurdish Afrin enclave earlier this year.

“The challenge facing Turkey now in Greater Idlib is that it has done the exact opposite of minimizing its exposure to the consequences of an Assad assault on the region,” Heras explained.

“Turkey has organized a Syrian rebel proxy army that is dependent on Turkish command-and-control and wants to fight to the death against Assad and Russia,” he elaborated, pointing out that Turkey's 12 observation posts “are deep inside Syria and are not easily defensible.”

“These considerations are made even worse because war in Greater Idlib means hundreds-of-thousands of Syrians heading towards Turkey and crowding into Afrin and the Euphrates Shield zone,” he added.

Since the HTS remains so firmly entrenched in Idlib a ferocious regime offensive could result in an enormous number of Syrian – there are over 2.5 million Syrians currently in the province – pouring over the border into Turkey if Damascus opts to level urban areas to rout the militants, there are an estimated 10,000 of them, as it infamously did in the final battle for Aleppo back in 2016. Turkey has subsequently deployed tanks to the Syrian border “as part of Ankara's contingency plan to contain a new refugee wave over the Syrian regime's looming assault on Idlib.”  

Turkey strenuously opposes such a disastrous outcome, but it's unclear if it can do anything at this stage to prevent it. Ankara has helped the remaining Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups in Idlib, which Heras referred to, unify in a bid to end divisions to give them a better chance to resist the regime, combined these group's number approximately 30,000 fighters.

 It would certainly prove risky, however, for Ankara to intervene on the rebel's behalf against the Syrian Army, especially with Russia giving that army decisive air support, without escalating the situation further and possibly creating another much wider conflict, not unlike the kind Mistura might have had in mind. Providing anti-regime forces in Idlib with heavy weapons amidst a confrontation would also undermine Turkey's stated position of wanting to bring an end to the Syrian conflict and possibly once again put it at fundamental odds with Russia.

 At the same time, Heras argued that “Turkey cannot quickly divest from Idlib” since that could lead to Assad and Russia turning “Turkey's remaining zone in Syria into one of the most miserable places on Earth.”

“Turkey's best hope is that the Trump administration provides it with diplomatic top cover to back Assad off of a military assault on Idlib,” Heras suggested. “Working with some breathing room, Turkey could then strike a deal with Russia that would divide Greater Idlib into zones, with the most troublesome, jihadist-filled areas going to Assad to deal with.”

By many accounts this upcoming offensive will be a phased one, meaning that rather than launch a major assault on the provincial capital the regime and the Russians will put pressure on Idlib's south – which the Syrian military shelled on Wednesday while Russian warplanes bombed the west of the province. Turkey's presence in both those areas is significantly smaller than in the east and north.

This would give Turkey an opportunity to confront HTS in the north, either directly by beefing up its own troop presence in the province or by proxy through the aforementioned groups it has helped unify. When calling for an alternative to a major regime assault Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu stressed that it's important to “differentiate between moderate rebels and radicals.”

“The local people and the moderate rebels are very disturbed by these terrorists, so we need to fight against them all together,” he said. Ultimately if Russia proves capable of limiting an Assad assault to Idlib's south, which would lessen the potential that Turkey will have to deal with another enormous influx of Syrian refugees, then the ball will be in Ankara's court to step-up efforts to combat HTS in the north. If it succeeds in neutralizing the HTS threat there then it could install allied Syrian fighters in its place and deter Damascus from attacking, as well as deny it any pretext to assault that area in order to destroy HTS.

“We are conducting joint work with the Russians and Iranians on Idlib to prevent another Aleppo disaster,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on August 30. On September 3 Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov echoed Çavuşoğlu by calling for a split between the HTS terrorists and the remnants of the moderate opposition forces. “We are now taking the most active effort, together with our Turkish colleagues, together with the Syrian government, and with the Iranians as participants in the Astana format, to split the armed normal opposition forces from the terrorists 'on the ground,'” Lavrov stated.

Splitting these “normal opposition forces” from HTS would be a much more effective strategy than simply bombing the group. Since Turkey supports many of these opposition forces its role could prove crucial in any effort to purge HTS from Idlib. Ultimately, helping bring about a split and destroying HTS could give Turkey a more substantial say over the foreseeable future of Idlib.

On September 7, the three guarantors of the Astana talk's met in Tehran to discuss a solution to the Syrian conflict. Erdogan stood out for his opposition to a major assault on Idlib and called for a ceasefire, which was rejected by both Iran and Russia. According to Kerim Has, a Moscow-based analyst on Russian-Turkish affairs, the “Kremlin is not going to change its position on Idlib.”

“Moscow is soon highly likely to start a gradually speeding up but comprehensive operation in Idlib, as a result of which the Idlib province probably will be totally controlled by Assad regime,” Has told Ahval News.

“Turkey's request for a limited operation in Idlib was probably not welcomed by Mr. Putin,” he elaborated. “A comprehensive ceasefire doesn't seem a realist option considering the HTS's current attitude, and also Damascus' aim to take the control of the province with Russian air support and Iran-backed groups. Also, I predict that Ankara, in any case, after a while will feel itself to change its present-day position and soften it according to the course of the operation.”

Has also noted that the summit demonstrated “that Turkish and Russian counterparts do not have a common understanding on the definition of terror and terrorism.” This was evidenced by the fact that during the summit that 12-points joint declaration made no mention of Turkey's primary adversary in Syria, the Kurdish YPG.

“Mr. Putin just ignored the words of Mr. Erdogan on this issue and preferred not to reply,” Has noted. “Also, Mr Erdogan's request for putting an additional article for calling all sides to a new ceasefire in Idlib was in a diplomatic but cynical way rejected by Mr. Putin.

It was also obvious that the mutual trust between Ankara and Moscow is still at its lowest level even though a rapprochement happened between the two in last two years. That's quite problematic for the relations in the future, specifically after Idlib.”

Has also notes that the summit demonstrated that the Astana process “was mostly based and is still continuing to work on Russian interests.”

“Turkey's participation in the Astana process is a facilitating factor for Russia's achieving its goals in Syria,” he elaborated. “Turkey's participation in the Astana process is a facilitating factor for Russia achieving its goals in Syria. Turkey also has some small gains from the Astana process, but Ankara – the Turkish political leadership – surely loses face.”

Has also pointed out that the Turkish political leadership is in no position to disrupt its ties with Russia at a time when its ties with the United States is at a historic low since “Ankara’s cooling relations with the U.S. would surely play into the hands of Kremlin during the Idlib operation and force the Turkish leadership either to abandon its support of the opposition groups there or to persuade those and other terrorist groups such as HTS to dissolve themselves after some time, which seems a less likely option at this moment.”

“In this regard, for not making the Idlib knot a breaking point for Russia and Turkey after maintaining a fine balance for the last two years, Moscow will highly likely launch a comprehensive military operation in Idlib at a moment when the Turkish leadership is in desperate need of Kremlin's support during a deepening Turkey-U.S. crisis,” he elaborated. “The timing of the operation is as important as the military strategy and preparedness.”

Has went on to suggest that November may prove an apt time for Moscow to support an operation on Idlib since that coincides with the new U.S. sanctions on Iran, which will likely have effects on the ongoing diplomatic crisis between the U.S. and Turkey as a result of the Zarrab-Atilla case and the possibility that Washington won't supply modern F-35 jets to Ankara in light of its purchase of advanced Russian S-400 air defense systems.

“It can be said that in any case that time is running in Moscow's favor and Kremlin may still choose to wait until late October or November to take some more comprehensive steps during Idlib operation,” Has concluded, adding, “So, if the comprehensive bombardments start soon in Idlib, that would mean that Moscow is almost certain of the negative results of Turkey's deepening crisis with the U.S. for Ankara and doesn't fear a severe reaction from Turkish leadership.”

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