Turkey faces interlinked quagmires in Idlib and Libya

Fighting in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province intensified last week, with the Syrian army and jihadist groups engaged in clashes to the south of the M4 highway and both sides suffering heavy losses. This has left the March truce secured in Idlib by Turkey and Russia on shaky ground, writer Hamide Yiğit said in an article on Artı Gerçek on Friday.

Idlib, the last province where rebels are holding out against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, has been a considerable problem for Turkey for years. Millions of displaced Syrians have taken refuge near the Turkish border and could attempt to cross if Assad’s onslaught reaches them. Turkish troops stationed in the province have frequently come under fire, and when dozens were killed in late February, the Turkish army launched a military operation in reprisal that led to the March truce.

Part of the problem is that Turkey has shifted much of its attention to its military operations in Libya – including trying to recruit rebels from Syria to fight for the Tripoli-based government, Yiğit said. Turkey may end up in an interlinked quagmire that drags it down in both Idlib and Libya.

Jihadist groups in Syria such as the al Qaeda-linked Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Turkistan Islamic Party have now set their sights on the Turkish army, despite initially having refrained from confronting it, she said.

Turkey’s crisis is compounded by conflicts between the groups it supports, Yiğit continued, adding that the most violent recent clashes happened in the Turkish-controlled city of Jarablus.

“There have been disagreements between (the rebel group) Jaysh al-Sharqiya and the Syrian National Army (the official name for the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army) for a long time, and occasionally there would be clashes,” Yiğit said, adding that the Northern Hawks, Hamza Division, Suleiman Shah Brigade, and Sultan Murad Division were among groups backed by Turkey that were also involved in recent clashes.

There has always been fighting for resources among the Turkey-backed groups, and Turkey is not willing to stop it, she continued, “because with the ceasefire, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) breathed a sigh of relief in Idlib and, transferred the tension to Libya, diverting all its attention there.”

While the clashes in Idlib remained limited, the AKP’s focus on Libya was among the reasons that they broke out in the first place, according to Yiğit.

Syrian militants have been offered lucrative deals to fight in Libya’s civil war, where Turkey is backing the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord against the forces of rebel general Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA).

Yiğit said Turkey had offered some Syrian fighters $2,000 per month, guaranteed passage to Europe from Libya afterwards, a one-time payment of $30,000 for veterans, as well as $60,000 and a lifelong stipend for the families of any fighters who are killed in Libya. These families would also receive Turkish citizenship. 

However, despite the attractive offers, recruitment efforts have struggled  as prospective Syrian recruits have seen “that those who went (to Libya) were paid only one salary once, and that the gates of Europe remained a dream for the time being,” Yiğit said. 

Furthermore, the Suleiman Shah and Sultan Murad Brigades under the SNA-Free Syrian Army’s Second Legion, also known as Faylaq al Sani, have prevented fighters from heading to Libya to stop their own position from weakening and because of reportedly high casualty rates of fighters who headed to Libya, Yiğit said.

“There is no possibility of defeating the LNA, and it is obvious that there is no such intention to speak of either,” Yiğit said. 

Meanwhile, Turkey is set to face a new Idlib quagmire, the analyst continued. Under Turkey’s guarantor status, Idlib turned into a hotbed for extremist groups, and “the fact remains that Turkey is left to deal with this jihadist stockpile in Idlib, which has come to resemble Afghanistan,” Yiğit said.

Yiğit cautioned that Turkey’s enabling of extremists in Syria, and its attempts to then export some of them to fight as proxies in Libya, could backfire and cost Turkey dearly.