This article was published in Arab News on January 14, 2019.
Turkey’s options in Idlib continue to diminish
Idlib came to the forefront of the Syrian crisis late last year as the Damascus government, with Russia’s massive military support, decided to extend its control to the province, where armed opposition factions of all types had been amassing for years. The elimination of this stronghold is important both for Syria and Russia for several reasons: First, Syria wants to get rid of the remnants of all terrorist organizations, and Russia is its strongest supporter. Second, the area is too close to the Russian air base at Hmeimim. Third, there are terrorists of ethnic Chechen origin both in Idlib and elsewhere in Syria.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan thought that a military operation in Idlib would cause a human tragedy because of its potential collateral damage and the belief that terrorist organizations would use the civilian population as a human shield.
It would also cause internal problems for Turkey — an attack at Idlib would move millions toward the nearby Turkish border. The country is already facing economic, social and security problems because of the three-and-a-half million Syrian refugees currently living on its soil. More refugees would further complicate Ankara’s problems.
Erdogan thought that it was worth trying to persuade some of the opposition factions settled in Idlib to withdraw in order to isolate the more extremist groups, especially Jabhat Al-Nusra — renamed Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS). He raised this question on Sept. 17 last year in a bilateral meeting in Sochi with the Russian president Vladimir Putin, and persuaded his host to prevent Syria from carrying out the military operation. A demilitarized zone of 15 to 20 kilometers was going to be created between the government forces and the rebels.
Putin agreed to it, but also set firm dates for the steps to be taken. The withdrawal of the rebel troops was due to be completed by Oct. 15. Many opposition factions announced that they were going to abide by these measures, but the HTS did not commit to doing so.
Putin will probably continue his cooperation with Turkey in Idlib, but will now be less eager to stop the Syrian government from carrying on with its attacks against the terrorist organizations
The demilitarization materialized to a great extent, but not entirely. Russia praised Turkey’s genuine efforts to fulfill its promise, but also underlined its discrepancies.
The agreement could not be fully implemented because, on the first day of 2019, the HTS attacked the other opposition factions and expanded the territory it was controlling. One notable opposition group defeated by the HTS was its former ally the Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki Movement — named after a 12th century ruler of Aleppo.
This is a setback for Ankara because the Al-Zenki Movement included many Syrian Turkmen groups. HTS attacked several towns and villages the movement held in Idlib and seized most of them. Some members of the defeated group joined the Turkey-supported National Liberation Front, while others fled into the Syrian province of Afrin, which is controlled by the Turkish army, leaving behind their tanks destroyed by the HTS. Government sources in Ankara used trivializing language for the HTS’ achievements.
Some of the areas vacated by the Al-Zenki Movement are very close to the points where Turkey has observation posts. The HTS has so far avoided harassing Turkish observers, but it is unclear what it will do when the situation deteriorates.
The clash between the HTS and the Al-Zenki Movement proved that Turkey had been too optimistic when it volunteered to avoid a human tragedy in Idlib. Putin will probably continue his cooperation with Turkey in Idlib, but will now be less eager to stop the Syrian government from carrying on with its attacks against the terrorist organizations.
In other words, we are now back to where we were prior to the Sept. 17 meeting between Erdogan and Putin. The only difference is that HTS now controls a greater area in Idlib. This may be an advantage but also a curse, because it is more difficult to defend a bigger area, especially when the occupier is not welcomed by the local communities.
For Turkey, the HTS attack in Idlib changed several parameters. Ankara will probably not insist on withholding the Syrian army’s attack. Instead it will focus more on preventing the refugee flow toward the Turkish border.
Recently, Turkey started to voice more loudly its plans to carry out a military operation to the east of the Euphrates in Syria. However, US President Donald Trump decided to pull America’s military presence out of Syria and asked Erdogan to eliminate the remnants of Daesh. It is unclear whether Turkey will be able to continue to perform its observation mission in Idlib, its military operation to the east of the Euphrates and fight Daesh all at the same time. But what is clear is that its options in Idlib continue to diminish.