Turkey in a tough spot in Idlib

Anyone who follows the war in Syria would hardly be surprised by the humanitarian disaster that is looming over the province of Idlib.  Since President Bashar Assad started to wipe out one after another rebel-held area across the country with help from Russia and Iran, it was clear that Idlib’s turn would come one day. Now that it is winning the regime has few incentives to show moderation. It will apply its familiar scorched-earth tactics in order to force the enclave into submission. The rebel capture of Idlib in early 2015 was a low-point for Assad. The region’s recapture will allow it to claim victory in the conflict that has dragged on for more than seven years.  

The human cost in an area densely packed with civilians, including hundreds of thousands internally displaced people (IDPs) who have already moved one or more times to escape the regime’s onslaught, will be prohibitive. But that certainly will not stop Assad’s forces. They might even end up winning the war of narratives.

Unlike other recently reconquered areas in southwest of the country, Idlib hosts militants loyal to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which originally started as a Syrian affiliate of al Qaeda. The HTS presence and influence on the ground will legitimise the government campaign. It is no accident that the Russian Ministry of Defence is drawing parallels to the U.S.-led campaign to take Raqqa from the self-styled Islamic State that claimed the lives of large number of civilians. It is worth remembering that the same point was made by no other than Russian President Vladimir Putin in an interview for Fox News in the aftermath of the ill-fated Helsinki Summit with U.S. President Donald Trump back in July.

The forthcoming campaign will mark a turning point for Turkey.  

Up to now, Ankara has been successful in averting an attack and gaining time.  Earlier this year, it looked as though Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan could work out a compromise on Idlib together with Putin. Russia would restrain Assad and Iranian proxies while Turks would intervene inside Idlib to convince HTS to disband and merge with other, less radical groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, a large Salafist militia.  

In February, Turkish armed forces set up a series of observation points along the borders of the enclave, establishing a barrier between the rebels and the pro-Assad forces. Ankara gained precious time. Russia showed that its brainchild, the de-escalation zones negotiated under the Asana process, delivers.

Assad was in position to shift forces to other fronts - recapturing Eastern Ghouta in April, rural areas north of Homs in May and Deraa in June-July. Though it knew the clock was ticking, Turkey made little progress in this crucial period in managing the political dynamics inside Idlib. Having won the battle of Afrin, Erdogan’s top priority was to win decisively in the presidential and parliamentary elections on June 24.  The financial crisis and the worsening spat with the U.S. diverted attention away from Syria. In the meantime, the situation in Idlib took a turn for the worse. The summer saw infighting amongst the various factions in the besieged enclave, providing the regime with plenty of propaganda fodder.

Turkey finds itself in a tough spot. Its presumed partners in the Astana process are not of much help, as last week’s summit with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Putin showed. Russia may be paying lip service to de-escalation but, as in previous offensives, its air force is spearheading the onslaught as Assad’s loyalist push on the ground. Interestingly, Iran has not scrambled its militias. That might have to do with the fact that other regions, closer to Syria’s eastern border are of higher value for Tehran. However, this might change if fighting escalates. The bottom line is that currently the pro-Assad side has a military advantage. Turkey is trying to offset it by deploying units of the Free Syrian Army in Idlib, but that might not be enough.

Ultimately, Erdoğan will have to decide between ramping up the presence of the Turkish military in the region to deter Assad. Then he would run the risk of a showdown with Russia, not an appealing prospect in light to the precedent set the downing of the Su-24 in November 2015.  Or he will need to withdraw the Turkish monitors from the border and face humiliation at the hands of Assad. The arrival of hundreds of thousands IDPs into areas of northwestern Syria under Turkish control would impose additional costs. It would also expose Turkey’s reliance on the EU that is currently footing the bill for the Syrians thanks to its refugee deal with Turkey in March 2016. Erdogan’s op-ed published in Wall Street Journal acknowledges that fact.  

In a nutshell, the Turkish leader badly needs to save face. He is petitioning help from both Putin and the West. The trouble is that he is running out of leverage. Russia can probably restrain Assad temporarily but certainly not stop him. Western allies, Europe in particular, can give Turkey extra cash to deal with the influx of people. However, they appear unwilling and unable to do much more.