This article was published in Ahval News on August 16, 2018.
Idlib may become a serious headache for Turkey
The Syrian province of Idlib was occupied at the early stages of the war by the Salafi-jihadist opposition factions. One of the cruellest attacks was carried out in Jisr al-Shoughur, Idlib, on June 5, 2011. A group of Jihadist besieged a police station and massacred 123 policemen and the mutilated arms and legs of the victims were thrown into the Orontes River.
As the war began to turn in favour of the government, opposition fighters besieged by regime forces in various pockets of resistance were evacuated to Idlib, because they thought the province would be safer for them than other places.
The first group that moved to Idlib came from Aleppo. Turkey played an important role in their evacuation. In March this year, opposition fighters agreed to be evacuated from Eastern Ghouta and, finally, fighters besieged in southwest Syria agreed to be evacuated to Idlib.
This movement looked like a tacit agreement between Damascus and the opposition factions: Damascus may have thought that dispersing them all over the country would create a bigger difficulty to eliminate them when the time comes and may have agreed to mass them in one place and eliminate them later.
For the opposition fighters, they may have thought that they would be slightly safer in a place where there are other opposition factions. Therefore, they agreed to be moved to Idlib. The fight among some of these factions was deadlier than their fight with regime forces, both before and after they were evacuated to Idlib.
Some opposition factions preferred to move to Syrian districts controlled by the Turkish army, such as Afrin, Jarablus or al-Bab, hoping that Turkey might extend its protection or negotiate a deal with the Syrian regime.
Idlib is important for Damascus as well. It is close to Qardaha, the hometown of the Assad clan and to the Russian Hmeimin airbase. It is adjacent to the Turkish border and to the Syrian district of Afrin, controlled by the Turkish army.
Damascus has intensified its military preparation for a major attack in Idlib. It has captured part of remaining 15 percent of the Jabal al-Turkman in the northeast of Latakia, on the way to Idlib. Military units that were stationed in Hama and in al-Ghab started to move towards Idlib. Pamphlets were dropped from aircraft inviting people to lay down their arms and surrender.
In view of impending Syrian military operation in Idlib, Turkey is planning to persuade as many moderate factions as possible to leave the al Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra – or its renamed version Tahrir al-Sham – and integrate them in the moderate faction, thus saving them from being eliminated by the Syrian army. The difficult side of this laudable effort is that what Turkey characterises as moderate is not characterized the same way by the regime and Russia. This difference surfaced again during a joint press conference held by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu with this Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
The second difficulty is the foreign fighters, who can be divided into three groups:
One is composed of Caucasian factions such as Jaish al-Mouhajiroon wal Ansar, Jaish al Usra, Junood al-Sham and Ajnad al Kawkas. They are all citizens of the Russian Federation.
The second is composed of Chinese citizens and has a Turkish name, Islami Türkistan Partisi (Islamic Party of Turkistan). It has 5,000 to 6,000 fighters.
The third is called Imam Boukhari Brigades and is composed of Uzbeks and Kyrgyz and are linked to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Turkey will have to find a solution for these fighters that will not hurt its relations with Russia and China, and that will not risk a reaction of from its nationalist electorate in Turkey.
A quadrilateral meeting on Syria between Turkey, Russia, Germany and France is scheduled for September 7. Turkey must have drawn lessons from the shortcomings of its present Syria policy. Therefore, it has to bring a persuasive new strategy to this meeting that does not push the dust under the carpet and which will stand beyond the Syrian crisis and lay the foundations for good neighbourly relations with Damascus in the future.