Turkey’s miscalculations undermined Syrian rebellion - analysis

Turkey’s policies in Syria has undermined the struggle of its Syrian rebel allies against President Bashar Assad and now Ankara’s only option is to manage the defeat as Syrian government forces continue to advance in the last major rebel-held enclave in the country, said analyst Seth J. Frantzman on Thursday. 

“Turkey has systematically miscalculated its moves in Syria, and its cynical policies have led its Syrian rebel allies to defeat,” said Frantzman in an article for The Hill. 

In the early years of the civil war in Syria, Turkey did not take enough measures to control its southern border, allowing many fighters to cross to Syria to join Islamic State and other jihadist groups.

Turkey avoided any concrete action of its own in Syria until 2016, when it launched a military operation in northwest Syria. Since then, Turkey has used Syrian rebels in three military incursions in the country, which mainly targeted the Kurdish fighters that Turkey sees as a security threat, Frantzman said. 

Turkey also joined the Astana process with Russia and Iran to try to end the Syrian war. It agreed on a deal with Moscow in 2018 to establish a demilitarised zone in the rebel-held northwestern Syrian province of Idlib.

“But in Idlib itself, Turkey never used the rebels it supports to control the area, as it did in Kurdish areas such as Afrin,” Frantzman said. “Instead, it set up observation points and its vehicles had to drive through countryside run by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Syria’s version of al Qaeda. This approach meant the Syrian regime continued to chip away at Idlib in 2019 and early 2020.”

Turkey then started sending Syrian rebels to Libya this year, to help the U.N.-recognised government in Tripoli fend off a military assault of General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army. 

Turkey’s choices “turned the Syrian rebels into mercenaries to fight in other parts of Syria, but not against their main enemy, the Syrian regime,” Frantzman said.

“This side-tracked the Syrian rebellion and co-opted it,” he said. “Now all that Ankara can do is manage the defeat of the Syrians and hope that it can hold a sliver of the border as Russia, Iran and Assad together decide the future of Syria.”