Sep 12 2018

Idlib offensive may lead to US-Turkey rapprochement - analyst

Turkish-backed rebels are likely be the first targets of the Syrian government’s expected offensive in the northwestern province of Idlib, the last major rebel-held enclave in Syria, but the battle may lead to a rapprochement between Turkey and the United States, Middle-East expert Fabrice Balanche, of the Washington Institute said on Tuesday. 

Despite Moscow and Tehran’s indifference to warnings, Ankara aims to protect it is rebel proxies and long-term strategic interests in Syria, Balanche said. Turkey prioritises weakening the Syrian Kurdish militia, which it sees as an extension of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), an armed group that has been fighting inside Turkey for more than 30 years.

The Washington Institute estimates that the number of armed rebels in Idlib is much higher than the generally quoted 30,000 figure, and probably double that, as they are reinforced by rebels fleeing from previously rebel-held southern enclaves seized by the Syrian government and its allies.

The rebel factions are split into two coalitions of more or less equal number; al-Qaeda affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Jabhat al-Wataniya al-Tahrir (JWT), which Ankara created to weaken HTS in May after its strategy to dissolve HTS proved unsuccessful, Balanche said. 

HTS at present controls most of northern Idlib bordering Turkey, while it has abandoned the southern part of the enclave to JWT, leaving Turkish-backed rebels squeezed between the Syrian army and HTS, Balanche said. It is hard for Ankara to provide supplies to rebels in the south of the enclave and the 12 observation posts it has established in accordance with an agreement with Russia and Iran.

While Damascus aim to seize control of the whole Idlib, they are likely to start with a limited offensive from the south to secure the area nearest Latakia and the Russian base at Hmeimim, Balanche said. “Given these apparent objectives, the Turkish-backed rebels will likely be the first targets of the coming offensive,” he said. 

Syrian government troops captured an area in the southeastern part of Idlib in 2017 and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was only calmed down by Russia giving a green light to Ankara to launch a military offensive against Kurdish forces in the northwestern district of Afrin. But this time “the U.S. military presence in the northeast would prevent any new Turkish offensive against the Kurds even if Erdoğan received another green light from Moscow,” Balanche said.

The first round of the battle in Idlib in areas controlled by Turkey-backed rebels could be very bloody, requiring the establishment of a humanitarian zone in the north controlled by radical factions for hundreds of thousand of civilians that would be displaced. In the second round against HTS, “Moscow, Tehran, and Damascus are likely to use overwhelming force, arguing that the goal of eliminating al Qaeda from the area would justify gross humanitarian violations,” Balanche said. 

“Although this Machiavellian plan might succeed in military terms, it would seriously damage relations between Russia and Turkey. The battle for Idlib may therefore represent an opportunity for U.S. rapprochement with Ankara, especially if Syrian or Russian forces target the Turkish observation posts dotting the rebel pocket,” Balanche concluded.