This article was published in Arab News on June 18, 2018.
Syrian tsunami moving from Idlib toward Turkey
Panos Moumtzis, the UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for Syria, last week warned that, if the Syrian government’s airstrikes and the mortar shelling in Idlib continue, two-and-a-half million people would have to look for other places to go.
Any military strategist could guess that Damascus would not indefinitely tolerate the presence of opposition factions in a province that it can control, and that the time would come, sooner or later, to settle its accounts with them. Now that Daesh is crippled to a great extent and other opposition groups are reduced to an ineffective level one after another, the government will probably maintain this momentum to deal with the remaining pockets of resistance.
Idlib is more than a pocket of resistance. It is close to the hometown of President Bashar Assad’s clan and the Russian Hmeimim Air Base. When several opposition groups were besieged by government forces and their hopes of winning the battle faded away, the government agreed to evacuate them to a place of their choice, and most of them chose Idlib. Many of these factions continued to fight each other after they moved to Idlib. Eventually, Jabhat Al-Nusra — the Al-Qaeda-linked group that renamed itself Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham in the hope it could escape being targeted by the government or other actors fighting on Syrian soil — prevailed over the other groups and became the strongest in the province.
When the city’s population swelled and the number of former extremist fighters grew almost to the level of the original population of the province, Assad may have thought that the time has come to do away with them. Moumtzis’ warning is the first alarm bell.
Turkey has several reasons to be worried about the situation. First, the shelled targets are very close to the observation posts that Turkey established along the line that divides the regime and opposition forces.
Second, the backbone of HTS is Al-Nusra, which was supported by Turkey in the past. Ankara cannot protect HTS from the government shelling because UN Security Council resolution 2254 includes this group among those that have to be fought. Al-Nusra changed its name, but there is another clause in the resolution that covers “all other entities associated with Al-Qaeda.” Since there are irrefutable links between Al-Nusra and Al-Qaeda, HTS will continue to be targeted.
The UN resolution is a binding obligation for Turkey, but it also has another obligation. The three guarantor countries of the Astana de-confliction process — Russia, Turkey and Iran — in May 2017 signed a memorandum reconfirming the commitments of the UN resolution. Though it is a looser obligation under international law, because it is undertaken under a trilateral memorandum, this is a more specific duty. On the other side of the ceasefire line are the Russian and Iranian forces. These two countries are supposed to observe whether the Syrian government will abide by the ceasefire. Like the Syrian government, they both consider HTS outside the scope of the ceasefire, therefore they cannot be expected to stop Syria shelling and bombing HTS or any other Al-Qaeda or Daesh-linked group in Idlib. Turkey may question the legitimacy of the shelling of the smaller groups that are not excluded by the UN resolution but, once HTS is defeated in Idlib, the other splinter groups will not be able to pose a serious threat.
Idlib is adjacent to the Turkish border. Many fighters and their families will go to the Turkish border when the security situation worsens.
Third is a more serious source of concern for Turkey. It is the fate of the HTS fighters and their families. If the Syrian government is persuaded that they may be reintegrated into society, it may do so. However, many of them will not accept being part of a society governed by the present regime, or the Syrian regime may not be prepared to reintegrate them. Turkey will be faced with a serious challenge on whether to forsake them or not. It may try to resettle them in the Syrian territories that are under its military control, but the same question will arise again when the Turkish army withdraws from Syria, as it has promised to do.
Idlib is adjacent to the Turkish border. Many fighters and their families will go to the Turkish border when the security situation worsens. Admitting them into Turkey would put additional financial burdens on Ankara’s shoulders. Refusing them would raise a moral issue.
Among the fighters, there are citizens of Russia, China and some Central Asian Turkic republics. If they cross the border from Syria to Turkey, their respective governments may ask Turkey to extradite them. This will give Ankara another dilemma.
As Moumtzis commented: “We may have not seen the worst of the crisis.” The tsunami is definitely moving toward Turkey.