What will the Idlib buffer zone mean for Turkey's future in Syria?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan successfully clinched a deal with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin over the future of Syria's rebel-held Idlib province this week. Instead of a widely feared Russian-backed Syrian regime assault on the province, Ankara and Moscow instead agreed to establish a demilitarised buffer zone around the area. If implemented, this could safeguard Turkey's military presence in both Idlib, where it has established 12 observation posts under the framework of the tripartite Astana process, the neighbouring Kurdish area of Afrin, which Ankara has occupied since March, and the northern parts of Aleppo province Turkey captured from Islamic State in Operation Euphrates Shield that ended in March 2017. 

“The Turkish presence in northern Syrian territories and Idlib issue are indeed interrelated,” said Timur Akhmetov, a Middle East analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council. 

“Unless, Damascus consolidates control, however symbolic it may be, over Idlib, it wouldn't be able to pressure Ankara to leave Afrin and Euphrates Shield lands,” he said. 

Akhmetov also pointed out that while Ankara did get some concessions in the Sochi meeting over Idlib “it also accepted some risks, especially when it undertook the responsibility to tackle terrorists there.”

“With terrorists still there by the end of this year, plans for an offensive will be still on the table and, with it, discussions on the future of Turkish presence in northern Syria,” he said. 

Abdulla Hawez, an independent Middle East analyst, said that while the status quo would be maintained for now in Syria “it is still far from clear what will happen in the months to come”.

“But I think Afrin and the Euphrates Shield areas are somehow off the negotiation table,” Hawez said.

“It seems, at least for now, that Russia has given this area to Turkey and Turkey seemingly intends to stay there for a long time,” he said, pointing out that Ankara had built a new road linking the Syrian city of Al-Bab with the Turkish town of Elbeyli, and even opened Turkish post offices, among other things, there in what appears to be an effort by Ankara “to de-facto annex Afrin and the Euphrates Shield area, even if it cannot do that officially.” 

“Idlib is a somewhat separate issue,” Hawez said. “For now a regime offensive seems to have been avoided, while the regime knows without getting back Idlib, their victory is never complete. The reality is, as we saw in the last few weeks, an offensive on Idlib would be far more complicated than other areas largely because of the number of civilians, Turkey and fear that Turkey may open its borders to let Syrians flee to Europe.”

The Russian-Turkish deal is expected to delay but not necessarily prevent an eventual regime offensive on Idlib. If Turkey proves unable to counter the threat posed by the estimated 10,000 Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) militants in the province in the coming months then a regime offensive is more likely if not inevitable, Akhmetov said. 

While this does put a lot of responsibility on Ankara's shoulders it does not necessarily mean it is a bad deal for Turkey. 

“I don't think Turkey made a bad deal,” said Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. “Turkey made the only deal available to it.”

“Ankara has agreed, in writing, to a set of explicit criteria that will require it deftly manage elements of the Syrian insurgency,” he said. “Turkey is being asked to disarm its allies inside a demilitarised zone and, importantly, guarantee HTS leaves territory.”

Stein said this would be extremely difficult and also does not “really resolve the broader question of how Turkey intends to manage its position in Syria moving forward.” 

“The regime will want to take back control of territory Ankara now governs,” he said, referring to Afrin and the Euphrates Shield zone. “The answer to that question will loom large long after Idlib is sorted.” 

Before Erdogan's trip to Sochi, there was speculation that the Syrian Kurds would assist a regime assault on Idlib in return for Damascus's help against Turkey in Afrin. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu even suggested that this was a possibility. 

Even though the Syrian Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) have since denied such speculation, Aldar Khalili, a senior Syrian Kurdish leader, did tell the Guardian on Sept. 7 that Kurdish forces would work with Assad if it gave them an opportunity to recapture Afrin. He clarified that while no forces had been moved to the region the Kurds “have shown our readiness to go into negotiations with the Syrian government to clear all parts of Syria from the ISIS, jihadis and terrorist groups backed by Turkey.” 

Such sentiments from the YPG show “too much optimism” on its part, independent Kurdish affairs analyst Lawk Ghafuri said. “This is because it was Russia and Iran that handed Afrin to Turkey by opening the door for Turkish troops to enter the city.”

“Turkey doesn't care if Russian or regime soldiers deploy in Idlib so long as they secure Idlib's border regions with its own forces to block any Kurdish expansions,” he said. 

“The YPG should be aware that aligning with Assad/Russia will be a mistake, but at the same time I feel the YPG has no other choice than going with the will of these two,” Ghafuri said. “Ultimately this deal will do nothing more than postpone Turkey's defeat in Syria.” 

Hawez also doubted that the YPG can do much about the fate of Afrin.

“Even if there was a military operation in Idlib and the YPG assisted it I doubt there would have been any serious action regarding Afrin,” he said. “Afrin and the Euphrates Shield areas are directly controlled by the Turkish army, no one would risk openly supporting the YPG in regaining the enclave.” 

He also argued that YPG's thinking in potentially assisting any regime offensive was more in getting concessions from Damascus “regarding the future of other areas of Rojava and northeast Syria.” 

Now, however, the group “has downplayed its position regarding negotiations with the regime in general because of the U.S. decision to stay in Syria indefinitely until there is a political settlement in the country.” 

When the Syrian Kurds first started sending delegations to Damascus earlier this year it was against the backdrop of a potential withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Syria, which are there supporting YPG-led forces against Islamic State. 

“All the negations with the regime were encouraged by the coalition forces, but now that the U.S. will stay, the YPG is in a stronger position,” Hawez said. 

There is little possibility that the YPG will be capable of taking major action against Turkish-held Afrin, he said, but small-scale operations would continue and the YPG is unlikely to give up on the hope of retaking the district.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.