Situations in Idlib and northeast Syria are tightly connected - expert

The situation in Idlib, the last major rebel held enclave in Syria, and the territories in northeast Syria controlled by the Kurdish forces appear to be two issues that are tightly connected to each other and blocking an advance towards a political solution, Alexey Khlebnikov, an expert on the Middle East at the Russian International Affairs Council, said in the National Interest.

Formerly Al Qaeda-affiliated group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has been controlling most of Idlib despite a deal between Ankara and Moscow agreed in September that included the establishment of a de-escalation zone by removing jihadi fighters.

Meanwhile some enclaves on the east of the Euphrates River are controlled by the mostly-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which forms the backbone of the U.S.-led International Coalition against the Islamic State. Ankara sees the SDF and its military wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting inside Turkey for more than three decades. 

As a response to HTS’ territorial gains in Idlib, Damascus backed by Moscow launched a military offensive in April. Ankara, which has concerns that the military assault may trigger a huge refugee inflow into Turkey, said last month that its observation posts in the region had been attacked by Bashar Assad’s forces three times.

“Ankara seeks to avoid a military operation in the area, but it lacks the capacity to simultaneously resolve the issue of HTS’ presence in Idlib. For Moscow and Damascus, this may be the best way to push Ankara and area rebels toward making concessions,” Khlebnikov said. 

Russia and Syria want to avoid a large-scale military operation but still have Idlib come under Damascus’ control, according to the analyst. This is necessary to regain control of the highways that connect Aleppo over Idlib over to the Mediterranean coastal province of Latakia, which in turn is necessary to restore economic and trade activity in the country, he said. 

“From another angle, the situation in Idlib is tightly connected to the problem of the SDF's control of territory in the northeastern part of the country,” Khlebnikov said, adding that according to senior Russian diplomats, an option for some sort of exchange deal between Moscow and Ankara on Idlib and Manbij might still be on the table.

The SDF still receives U.S. support, and the main reason for the United States not withdrawing all forces from Syria after the Trump administration announced their intent in 2018 is to act as a buffer between the Turks and Kurds, the analyst said.

Ankara last year announced plans to launch a military operation against Kurdish-held territories in northeast Syria. The United States and Turkey have been discussing the establishment of a safe zone in the region since then. 

The U.S. administration has repeatedly expressed a focus on the groups who fought with them in Syria. U.S. Ambassador James Jeffrey, Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, said in an interview that the Islamic State could not have been defeated without the SDF, and that the U.S. would ensure that they are not mistreated.

According to Khlebnikov, Washington’s indecisiveness in Syria pushes Ankara closer to Moscow. He said Turkey might attempt to strike a deal on Kurds with Russia, but it was uncertain how the United States would respond to such a move. 

“Turkey now finds itself in quite tricky situation. On the one hand, it doesn’t want to go for a large-scale military operation against the Kurds for very good reasons. On the other hand, Ankara is looking for a limited face-saving operation in east of Euphrates areas which will be supported by Moscow,” the analyst said.