In Syria's Idlib, Turkey aims to curb Kurdish militia and refugee flow - analyst

Turkey’s stance in the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib appears to have shifted, though it still hopes to use the situation to contain the Syrian Kurdish militia and prevent another refugee influx, said an analysis on Tuesday at U.S. think tank the Washington Institute.

On May 6, the Syrian army began a ground offensive aimed at regaining control in some or all of Idlib province. Hezbollah and Shia militias are fighting with Syrian troops, and the Russian air force is strongly supporting the offensive against more than 50,000 well-armed, battle-hardened rebel fighters remain in Idlib, according to Fabrice Balanche, assistant professor and research director at the University of Lyon 2.

Turkey had long opposed any Syrian offensive against Idlib, out of concern about refugees and to focus on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s primary goal of keeping the Kurdish-led People’s Defense Units (YPG) from taking control of Syria’s northeast frontier, according to Balanche. When an Idlib campaign loomed last September, Turkish and Russian officials reached a ceasefire agreement in Sochi to keep Syrian forces from attacking.

About half of the Idlib rebels belong to the jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is partnered with some 5,000-10,000 al-Qaeda allies. In general, south Idlib is more fragile and violent than the north, where HTS and other jihadists maintain a stronghold.

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“Another reason why Assad may leave the north in peace for now is so that fleeing civilians and rebels from the south can take refuge there,” said Balanche. “The regime does not want to upset Turkey, which would face a new wave of refugees if north Idlib were under threat.”

According to the UN, about half of Idlib’s 3 million residents are internally displaced. The Syria-Turkey border is closed with a wall, but hundreds of thousands of IDPs have been piling up nearby in informal camps.

“If these refugees tried to cross the frontier by force, Ankara would not be able to prevent their passage without a slaughter,” said Balanche. “At the same time, Turkey is unwilling to increase the massive number of Syrian refugees it already hosts—3.8 million at last count. To avoid a worst-case scenario, Ankara has likely obtained approval from Russia to turn the Syrian side of the Idlib border into a refugee sanctuary if necessary.”

Erdogan has been unable to enforce key terms of the Sochi ceasefire, such as the creation of a safe zone between rebel and regime forces in Idlib. “Once the pro-Turkish National Front utterly failed to wrest influence away from HTS, Erdogan was left with little tactical reason to continue opposing a regime offensive,” said Balanche.

Russian President Vladimir Putin treated the Sochi agreement not as a genuine accord to be honored, but as a way to keep Turkey on his side at a time when Erdogan was upset with Washington for supporting the YPG, according to Balanche.

“Moreover, Putin might believe that attacking Idlib and stoking potential refugee/jihadist flows toward Turkey could pressure Ankara on other bilateral imperatives, such as completing its controversial purchase of Russian S-400 missile systems,” said Balanche.

Yet Erdogan may still seek to use Idlib as leverage to gain freedom of action against the YPG.

“The Sunni rebels and the Kurds are the main currency of exchange between Turkey and Russia, so their fate is intimately linked. In these circumstances, Turkey understandably does not want Assad to completely retake Idlib right away, since that could affect the pace of America’s withdrawal from Syria and the U.S. special envoy’s ability to peacefully resolve the problems between Ankara and the YPG,” said Balanche.