Op-Ed: Turkish-Syrian Confrontation in Idlib: What Next?
By Anton Evstratov
The impressive successes of the Syrian army, which liberated 600 square kilometers in a few weeks (Idlib and Aleppo provinces) and the attempts of Turkey, supporting opponents of official Damascus, to stop this advancement, put the region on the brink of the beginning of a new stage of armed confrontation.
This Syrian offensive began in May last year, and until January 2020, it went through two stages, each of which led to the territorial losses of Idlib militants, but then stopped by the Turkish leadership through diplomatic channels. The current stage is the third and most successful. The Syrian army freed the M5 highway connecting Damascus with Aleppo.
Ankara invariably threatens Damascus through the mouths of its president, vice president, ministers of foreign affairs and defense, as well as the leaders of certain political parties. The most significant threat in this stream is, without a doubt, the call of the leader of the Nationalist Movement Party, Erdogan’s political ally Devlet Bahceli, to take Damascus sent to the Turkish president.
However, the conflict with Syria for Turkey will inevitably become an armed confrontation with Russia, which is the main ally of the government of the Arab Republic. It is Russian military experts who provide support to the advancing units of the Syrian army in Idlib and Aleppo. It was the Russian aerospace forces that closed the sky of these provinces for actions, primarily by Turkish aviation.
We must not forget about Iran, which, for internal reasons (preparation for the parliamentary elections, lack of funds due to US sanctions), although it has somewhat moderated its activity in Syria, but continues to support Damascus in the military, political and economic spheres. A few days ago, pro-Iranian militias joined the Syrian forces operating in Idlib, reinforcing the advancing units with their experienced fighters.
Ankara responded with a publication from Anadoglu, which accused Russia and Iran of military operations in Idlib.
And all this is against the backdrop of almost permanent consultations between the Russian and Turkish leaders and representatives of the high military command of the two countries, which, apparently, cannot agree on anything. And this is understandable – Russia and Syria act in a certain sense “from a position of strength” – after all, Turkey was not able to, despite the many existing agreements (for example, in Sochi, and earlier in Astana), make a separation between the “moderate” and “radical “Idlibic militants and exclude the latter’s attacks on the positions of the Syrian Arab army.
As for the military situation, Turkey’s position in Idlib and in Syria as a whole is very precarious. The Syrian army has already surrounded 10 Turkish observation posts, military personnel at which may become hostages in the event of aggressive Ankara. Moreover, the Syrian army, even without the participation of Russia, according to military experts, should have the strength to cleanse its country of Turkish troops and their allies. However, there is no reason to believe that the Russian Federation will not support its ally.
There are many levers of pressure from Moscow on Ankara. These are military contracts, the gas issue, and other sectors of bilateral trade, and even the security of Turkish troops in the “Kurdish” regions of Syria – in the north-east of the republic. Turkey has only the “Turkish Stream” for Russia, which, however, is needed by the Turks no less than the Russians. Ankara’s “joker” could be her membership in NATO, and she is actively working with this organization – this was expressed, in particular, in the visit to Turkey of the US Special Envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, who supported Erdogan precisely as “the United States’ NATO ally.” Jeffrey described the Turkish soldiers killed in shelling by Syrian government forces as “our martyrs.” The United States, he said, supports Turkey’s “legitimate interests” in Idlib. However, American support does not seem to be an effective means of keeping Turkish troops in Idlib, where the Russians, unlike the Americans, are ready to use force.American support for the Turkish position in Idlib was even a reason for bullying by the Russian embassy in Ankara, which published the words of US Secretary of State Pompeo benevolent towards Turkey against the backdrop of statistics on US aid to opposing Turks.
It should be noted that an understanding of these realities is also present in Turkey, where along with aggressive statements by Erdogan, Bahceli and others, sometimes much more sane assessments of the situation sound. Thus, the Minister of Defense of the Republic Hulusi Akar promised to use force against radical Idlib groups that do not comply with the Russian-Turkish ceasefire agreements. Akar had in mind, first of all, the Salafis “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham”, formally opposing the pro-Turkish “moderate” “National Defense Forces” in Idlib, but in fact easily merging with them if necessary.
Many in Turkey also understand that the presence of the Idlib “Jihadistan” on the southern borders of the republic is a danger not only to Syria, but also to Turkey itself. Therefore, independent media are increasingly calling on the Turkish leadership to conclude a peace treaty with the government of Bashar al-Assad and completely withdraw from Idlib. Even MP Pervin Buldan, one of the leaders of the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party, said that Turkey should completely leave Syria and leave the fate of this country to its citizens.
There is no doubt that the Turkish authorities cannot do this painlessly, because spent a lot of resources and put a lot of effort into developing the province’s infrastructure. At the same time, Ankara did not develop a political formula that would allow it to remain in Idlib, which means that it will still have to be left. Peace with the Syrian government will enable the Turks not only to get rid of the heavy political and economic burden, which is the rebellious territory of Syria, but also to solve the problem of refugees in the future by sending them to their pacified homeland.
Recall that now in Turkey there are about 3.7 million Syrians, which seriously distorted the social structure of Turkish society and even affected the recent local elections. In the event of an escalation of the confrontation in Idlib, about 800 thousand more will pour into Turkish territory, which will be extremely difficult to provide with all necessary Ankara.
All this will soon become the reason for the revision of the agreements between Syria and Russia previously in the light of the establishment of new military and political realities in the country – we can hardly expect the Syrian army to leave 600 square kilometers of occupied territory and its refusal to control the strategically important Damascus highway Aleppo installed the other day. The main bargaining will, apparently, be conducted over the zones of Turkish influence in northwestern Syria. For example, refugees from Idlib, whom Ankara does not burn with a desire to see within its borders, can be moved there. However, for this Erdogan needs to take the city of Kobani, which will connect the Turkish-controlled Jerablus and Tal-Abyad, as the passage of refugees through Turkey is fraught with their dissolution there.
However, the government of Bashar al-Assad intends to return the northeast of the SAR. It seems that under these conditions, it will be easiest for Moscow to put pressure on the Syrian Kurds, using the threat of further advancement of the Turks, and finally reunite their territories with the rest of Syria. Also, a condition of protection from the Turks from the Russian Federation and Damascus may be the Kurds breaking all remaining ties with the US military in the province of Deir al-Zor.
Thus, the further advance of the Syrian forces in Idlib and even their consolidation in the already occupied positions will force Moscow and Ankara to reconsider the existing agreements on the Syrian settlement. Obviously, the Turks will have to give in – not only to the Russians, but also to the Syrian government. A certain, though not a priority, impact on these changes will also be provided by the Iranian side and, possibly, the countries of the West, however, the main negotiations will be between Turkey and Russia.
Despite the danger of war between them, an open conflict is not in the interests of each of the parties, and Russia, having at the moment in the SAR more powerful military, political and image positions, will exert maximum pressure on Turkey. Most likely, as a result, the Turks will have to leave Idlib and withdraw their regular units from the northeast of the Arab Republic in exchange for guarantees of security, from Moscow and Damascus, in the Kurdish territories.