A catastrophe in Idlib has now become more difficult to avoid
A catastrophe is drawing close in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib and chances of avoiding it seem dim, if not non-existent.
The Syrian government is trying to clear its territory from all sorts of armed opposition and massing troops on three sides of the province. It would not like to see a Kurdish entity emerge in this locality, but it may find it convenient to let the Kurds fight against Salafist/jihadist opposition factions there.
Russia supports the Syrian government, but is more focussed on killing the Chechen and Daghestani terrorists in Idlib rather than letting them disperse to other countries where they may become a headache. It also wants to prevent Turkey from becoming alienated and keep it as a partner in the Astana process.
Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said the United States, Britain and France were preparing an attack against Syrian government forces after staging a chemical attack against various targets in Idlib. He also gave the number of barrels of chlorine delivered to the militants of Jabhat al Nusra and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the name of the village, Halluz, where the barrels he said were being stored and said a British paramilitary group called Oliva, had been sent to Idlib to play the role of an emergency assistance team after the pre-staged chemical attack was carried out. It will be a shame for the international community if these claims turn out to be true.
Washington’s attitude to Syria has evolved from an outright rejection of any role for President Bashar Assad to acquiescence to his staying until the transition to democracy is complete. However, the United States also wants a role in the shaping post-war Syria through the Syrian Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) that it has equipped and trained for years.
Turkey is squeezed between what is rational and what its national interests dictate. Its Idlib policy sits on three legs. One is Jabhat al-Nusra, which was established in 2012 by Mohammed al-Jolani, as an offshoot of al Qaeda. In 2017, with a view to avoiding becoming a target of the UN Security Council resolution 2254, Nusra cut links with al Qaeda and reorganised under the name Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Turkey seeks now to persuade Russia, and beyond it the international community, that there may be among the terrorists those who could be persuaded to lay down arms and be incorporated into Syrian society one way or another. Syria and Russia may not buy this argument.
Secondly, if Syrian government forces bomb all targets in Idlib indiscriminately, Ankara is worried that a huge wave of refugees would move towards the Turkish border. Damascus may prefer to do so for the sake embarrassing Turkey if not for other reasons. Turkey wants to avoid such bombing in the first place, but if it happens after all, to keep the refugees on the Syrian side of the border.
Thirdly, Turkey is uneasy about the involvement of Kurdish fighters in Idlib, because they may get an upper hand in the negotiations for the post-war Syria and the Turkish government is opposed to the emergence of any sort of Kurdish entity in the region. But Kurds consider this area part of their homeland and are eager to fight for it. There are two geographical names confirming Kurdish claims regarding the area.
One is Jabal-al-Akrad (Kurds’ Mountain) in the north of Lattaquia. The other is in the north of Afrin spanning both sides of Turkey-Syria border and is again called Kurds’ Mountain (Kürt Dağı). A manuscript titled ‘Sharafname’, drafted in 1592, said the authority of Kurdish ‘beys’ of the region was extended to localities in Antakya. If these geographical and historical references mean anything, it is that there was always a Kurdish presence in the area. Ankara cannot easily disregard these facts.
Turkish and Russian foreign and defence ministers, together with their intelligence chiefs, held talks in Moscow on how to close the gap between the two countries’ positions, with no conclusive outcome.
In the present circumstances, all options are unpleasant for Turkey, but most of these outcomes could have been predicted by decision-makers with foresight.