This article was published in Arab News on September 25, 2017.
How Turkey is re-adjusting its Syria policy
Turkey, Russia and Iran reached a milestone agreement in Astana this month that may affect the situation in Syria, and more so Turkey’s Syria policy; it looks as if Turkey has moved one step closer to the Russian-Iranian common position, which consists of consolidating the Syrian regime’s control. This is a welcome development and Turkey has to be congratulated for having shown this flexibility.
The details of the agreement are still being worked out. What is known so far is that the de-confliction process agreed in the earlier Astana meetings for three zones (Eastern Ghouta, Northern Homs and Daraa-Quneitra) is working more or less satisfactorily. The fourth zone, Idlib, is a more complicated case, first because it looks like a pot-pourri filled with all sorts of opposition fighters. They amassed there more than a year ago when they were besieged elsewhere and persuaded by the regime to lay down arms, and then they were given safe passage.
Second, Idlib is on the Turkish border and the deployment of Turkish observers is a sensitive issue for the Syrian regime. In fact, government negotiators in Astana strongly opposed any additional Turkish military presence in Syria after Operation Euphrates Shield, which ended up with the occupation of over 2,000 square kilometers of Syrian territory by the Free Syrian Army, supported by Turkey.
Third, Turkish troops are likely to face difficulties in their role as observers. Such a mission requires neutrality, but Turkey has not changed its position of “Syria without Bashar Assad.” Several months ago Ankara began to tone down its anti-Assad rhetoric, but the language used by the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in New York last week suggests that Turkey’s first choice remains Assad’s removal.
Furthermore, some opposition factions fighting regime forces in Idlib have benefited in the past from Turkey’s support or tolerance. Civilian extensions of some of them are still active in Turkey. Last month a group of Syrian Sunni clerics in Gaziantep invited non-extremist opposition fighters to organize as a “national army” under the “Syrian Interim Government” established in Istanbul in November 2013.
Ankara seems to be ready to assume a bigger role in Idlib, which is far riskier and more complicated than the other three zones in the Astana agreement.
In Idlib, Turkey’s expectation may be a military presence comparable to that in the Euphrates Shield region, where it acts as an autonomous authority. In the northern Syrian cities of Jarablus, Al-Bab, Bizaah and Qabaseen, Ankara appointed public servants as administrators to look after the daily needs of the local population and to oversee the re-settlement of civilians ousted from their homes by Daesh or by the Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed branch of the strongest Kurdish political party in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Turkey contributes to the construction of barracks for the Free Syrian Army fighters. It moved them out of districts inhabited by civilians to avoid clashes and facilitate their full-time military training.
The sensitive task of the troops sent by Turkey to Idlib will be to observe whether the truce is violated by the Syrian regime that it wishes to fall, or by opposition factions who have benefited from Turkey’s support. That will require a lot of diplomatic skill.
De-confliction does not mean peace. It is the preservation of the truce. The Idlib problem has to be brought to a definitive solution sooner or later. Will the fighters of less extremist factions be incorporated one way or another in local security forces? What will become of the foreign fighters; will they be deported to their countries of origin? Will Turkey receive some of the fighters that it supported in the past? Once in Turkey, will the Turkish authorities be able to refuse extradition requests by the countries of origin of these fighters? Will various factions continue to kill each other in Idlib? Will the question be left to fester? These and similar other questions remain unanswered.
Russia is not opposed to Turkey playing a bigger role in Idlib. Turkey seems to be ready to assume one. However, defeating a battle-hardened extremist organization such as Hay’at Tahrir Al-Sham in its last refuge is a gigantic task. If that task is left to Turkey alone, it must envisage suffering big losses.