This article was published in Ahval News on September 6, 2018.
The beginning of the end in Idlib
The first shots of a military operation that has been expected for months in the northern Syrian province of Idlib came this week when Russian fighters taking off from the Hmeimin air base hit about 20 targets in and around the town of Jisr al-Shoughur. The day after, the Syrian army hit other targets in the north and west of the city of Hama.
There are unconfirmed reports that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – trained, equipped and strongly supported by Turkey – was also targeted. This is the biggest surprise of the operation. It is unclear whether it was an inadvertent move or a specific message to Turkey.
Turkey is trying to sort civilians from the armed opposition, and radicals from the less radicals in Idlib. Russia wanted Turkey to do it more quickly. Bearing in mind the complexity of the situation, Turkey was trying to accomplish this daunting mission as genuinely as possible.
Russia signalled exasperation when Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday the situation in the rebel-held Syrian province of Idlib could not be tolerated indefinitely and that the Syrian government had every right to wipe out the terrorists in this province. If Lavrov said it as plainly as that, Russia must have voiced the same concern more emphatically behind closed doors.
The criteria to distinguish the armed groups that will be targeted are contained in UN Security Council resolution 2254, which provides that terrorist organisations such as Islamic State and al-Nusra Front and “all other individuals, groups, undertaking and entities associated with al-Qaeda” are legitimate target for elimination, along with “all other organisations designated as terrorist by the Security Council”.
These criteria were reconfirmed in the Astana Memorandum between Russia, Iran and Turkey establishing de-confliction zones. Turkey has therefore a contractual obligation stemming from the UN resolution and another more specific obligation stemming from the Astana Memorandum that Turkey signed.
Syrian government’s definition of legitimate target is broader and includes almost any person, faction or organisation that is involved in armed clashes with the state. Leaving aside this broader definition, which is not binding for Turkey, Ankara has sufficient criteria to complete this task and present it to the Astana platform at once.
Russia must have adjusted the timing of the military operations to coincide with a summit to in Iran on Friday by three guarantor states of the Astana process. It may have wished to start the summit with a higher bid.
The Syrian army’s declared strategy is to clear the province gradually. If it remains unchanged, mass movements may be minimised and spread over time, because people will adjust themselves to the new reality that the gradual move of the army will create. In fact, the latest attack did not cause a panic and there was no noticeable move towards the Turkish border.
Syria is set to recover its territory and will mobilise all its means to achieve it. Russia and Iran will probably continue to extend to Damascus whatever assistance they may provide, but retrieving Idlib is not a foregone conclusion for Damascus. Other major players will have to adjust their policy according to these paradigms.
Depending upon the circumstances, many civilians may move towards the Turkish border. Ankara will have to cope with this reality, whether on the Turkish or Syrian side of the border. And all these coincide with one of Turkey’s worst economic crises.
Ankara’s declared Idlib policy is to spare the lives of civilians and prevent mass migration towards Turkey. If it remains within the limits of these realistic expectations, it may overcome the difficulties that it is likely to face.
The Idlib question will be the main agenda item in the Iran summit. Russian and Iranian positions on the specific question of clearing the province of terrorists are closer to each other than to Turkey’s position. Therefore, these two countries may turn to Turkey to beg it to do more to complete the job.
In view of the complex situation in Idlib, for which Turkey has its own share of responsibility, it has no other choice but to muddle through.