This article was published in Arab News on September 17, 2018.
Turkey redoubles efforts to find peaceful solution in Idlib
All fighting groups in Idlib are keeping their fingers on the trigger of their weapons, while the civilians keep their finger crossed, hoping that the combatants will refrain from launching an attack. As the risks of a confrontation increase, the warring factions become more aware of the devastating effects of a conflagration.
In the extremely complex Syrian arena, the armed opposition includes everyone ranging from the fierce extremists who previously fought in the ranks of Daesh or Al-Qaeda-linked organizations such as Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) to moderate groups who took up arms only to protect their neighborhood. The Syrian government has already announced that it will not make any distinction between the HTS and any other faction, moderate or not, that is engaged in armed opposition against the state, and aims at eliminating them all.
In an effort to prove that it does distinguish extremist terrorist groups from moderate ones, Turkey belatedly decided to include, on Aug. 31, the HTS in its list of terrorist organizations. This is an important decision and Turkey has to be congratulated for it. But, on the other hand, it exposes the bitter reality that, until a few weeks ago, it did not consider the HTS a terrorist organization.
With a view to streamlining the armed opposition as much as possible, Turkey tried several models to bring a slew of warring factions in Idlib under one single umbrella. First, it created in February an organization called the Syrian Liberation Front (SLF), which was mainly composed of two hard-line Sunni Islamist groups — the Idlib branch of Ahrar Al-Sham and the Nour Al-Din Al-Zenki Movement. Three months later, it formed a military council with the participation of the SLF, Suqour Al-Sham, the Free Idlib Army and the Sham Legion. In August, it decided to form another umbrella organization called the National Front for Liberation, which incorporates the SLF together with Suqour Al-Sham, Jaysh Al-Ahrar and the Damascus Gathering.
Bashar Assad sees that Turkey is trying to create a strong Turkophile community in northern Syria.
Apparently Turkey is taking these initiatives because it does not want to lose its leverage to contribute to the shaping of post-crisis Idlib, but these organizations have fought each other in the past so it is not easy to tell whether they will remain under the same umbrella for long.
Syria cannot be expected to be grateful to Turkey for these initiatives, because it believes Ankara made these efforts to further complicate its job. Bashar Assad sees that Turkey is trying to create a strong Turkophile community in northern Syria and use it to put pressure on the Syrian regime during the transition and post-crisis periods.
Turkey announced its position on the Idlib question on two occasions. One of them was explained by Ibrahim Kalin, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s special adviser, after this month’s summit of the Astana trio — Turkey, Russia and Iran — in Tehran. He said: “The Russian air force and Syrian ground forces cannot envisage launching an attack in Idlib while Turkish troops are deployed in the province.” This statement may be misinterpreted as though Turkey will shield the terrorist groups because, if these two countries attack, they will attack terrorists, not civilians.
The second statement on the subject was again made by Kalin, after a meeting that he hosted on Sept. 14 in Istanbul with the participation of the presidential advisers from Russia, Germany and France. He said: “Turkey needs more time to persuade these opposition factions to give up their fight. Our expectation is that the status quo in Idlib should be maintained.” He did not answer a question on how long this status should be maintained, but said the experts will continue to exchange views this week. What conclusions will be reached by the experts remains to be seen.
Russia understands Ankara’s legitimate worries about the mass movement of refugees toward Turkey, but it has also given signals that the Idlib problem has to be solved sooner rather than later.
There is definitely a need to bring the Idlib question to an end, but there is no compelling reason to do it at once. Therefore, Turkey’s expectation to give more time to its persuasion efforts could be accommodated by the main actors, including Syria. On the other hand, Damascus’ patience may wear thin if Turkey uses this period for purposes other than persuading the moderate opposition to give up their fight, and Russia may not stay indifferent to Syria’s demand to launch the military operation at once.
If a calm atmosphere settles in Idlib, hope for a peaceful solution may surge again. The circumstances are certainly suitable to support the postponement of the military action for a while, but not indefinitely.