Turkey's Idlib operation could backfire - diplomat

A retired high-ranking Turkish diplomat warned that Turkey could face devastating consequences if it could not keep the peace in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib.

“Idlib will be the stage for a very bloody battle,” Şükrü Elekdağ told Uğur Dündar in an interview in Sözcü newspaper on Wednesday.

“And it will surely create a mass wave of migration heading towards our borders.”

Turkish troops began entering Idlib province and setting up military observation posts this month, a move Turkey said was intended to help it enforce a ceasefire it agreed with Russia and Iran at talks in the Kazakhstan capital Astana in May. Russia has been carrying out a similar role in another part of the province.

The former Turkish Ambassador to the United States said the creation of a 10-km buffer zone on the Syrian side of the Turkish border would best protect Turkey’s interests.

“We still shelter three million Syrian refugees, so taking this precaution would be seen as reasonable and legitimate in the conscience of world society,” he said.

Ankara expected to get the go-ahead from Russia and Iran to invade the northwestern Syrian territory of Afrin, controlled by the Syrian Kurdish PYD, Elekdağ said, but this belief was misplaced.

Russia is emphasising that just like the United States, it will protect the PYD/PKK and will prevent Turkey from crushing them at every opportunity. Second, they are banning Turkey from entering Afrin. Thus, they are negating Ankara’s justification for undertaking a dangerous mission in Idlib.”

The PYD is the Syrian branch of the PKK, a Turkish Kurdish group that took up arms against Turkey in 1984. The PKK is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the European Union, and the United States.

The PYD, and its armed wing the YPG, controls the Syrian province of Afrin, which borders both Idlib and Turkey, and which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan hinted in a speech Tuesday was Turkey’s next target.

Proposed temporary division of Idlib Province as published by the Turkish press after the Astana Agreement talks
Proposed temporary division of Idlib Province as published by the Turkish press after the Astana Agreement talks

According to the Astana Agreement, Elekdağ said, Turkey should be ready to use armed force to prevent clashes between Syrian government forces and “armed opposition groups”.

But he said that Russia was angling to annihilate the Khorasan group – an Idlib-based faction of the al-Nusra-affiliated Tahrir al-Sham made up of jihadists from the Russian provinces of Dagestan and Chechnya – while the Syrian government had its own scores to settle in the province.

Damascus, meanwhile, has demanded that Turkey immediately remove its troops from Idlib, calling the incursion a “blatant aggression against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria”.

None of this has made Elekdağ any more optimistic about Turkey’s situation.

“We are going to come face-to-face with a hellish tableau in Idlib,” he said.