Turkey, Russia and Iran had agreed in the Astana peace talks last month to designate Idlib as one of four Syrian de-escalation zones, another vague term that implies a mutually agreed upon cessation of hostilities mainly between Syrian rebel groups and regime forces. But Idlib is an uncharacteristic rebel-held province. Thousands of rebel fighters and their families have been evacuated to Idlib from various areas of Syria, especially Aleppo, Homs, Qalamoun, Zabadani and the Damascus countryside (Ghouta) during the past year. A few months ago, infighting between various groups ended in the Tahrir Al-Sham alliance, an umbrella for Jihadist elements belonging to the former Al-Nusra Front, taking control of the province. Al-Nusra had cut ties with Al-Qaeda last year and rebranded itself, but still Russia and the US-led coalition consider it a terrorist group that has no place in any future political settlement.
One of the declared objectives of the Turkish campaign is to separate “moderate rebels” from “terrorist organizations,” according to Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. But that is easier said than done. Only a small part of Idlib is in the hands of so-called moderate groups. They are stuck between their former comrades from Tahrir Al-Sham and the Syrian Kurdish fighters belonging to the Syrian Democratic Forces/People’s Protection Units (SDF/YPG). Regime forces are entrenched not far off as well, making a three or four-way clash a possibility.
The agreement to allow Turkish forces to enter Idlib was reportedly taken when Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan met in Ankara at the end of last month. In announcing the operation, Erdogan said Russia will provide air cover to the advancing FSA fighters. But FSA sources have denied this and Russia’s Defense Ministry has been reluctant to comment.
On Sunday, Reuters reported that the Turkish military had shelled areas in Idlib after coming under attack from neighborhoods under Tahrir Al-Sham control. But Reuters also reported that a Turkish exploratory convoy had entered the province on Sunday, accompanied by Tahrir Al-Sham vehicles, and headed towards Aleppo’s northwestern edge close to where SDF/YPG forces were positioned. Local sources told the agency that Ankara may have reached an understanding with the militant group in control of Idlib.
Ankara’s arrangement with Moscow and Tehran stipulates that Turkey will be responsible for keeping the peace inside the province while Russian and Iranian observers will be deployed on its parameters. But how far Turkey, or its FSA proxy, is willing to go in confronting the well-armed radical fighters remains unclear. Erdogan’s motives in embarking on this adventure are dubious. He has been adamant in stopping Syria’s Kurds from expanding their territory along the borders with Turkey.
Russia, Iran, the US and the Syrian regime will let the Turkish president do the dirty work and carry the blame for the hefty humanitarian consequences.
Operation Euphrates Shield, launched last year, had stopped short of achieving its goals of overcoming the SDF/YPG; the operation was derailed by the US and Russians. Erdogan has been wooing the Russians in response to America’s increasing support of the Syrian Kurds, who are now encircling the Daesh stronghold of Raqqa. Relations between Ankara and Washington have been shaky as a result.
Now analysts believe Erdogan wants to take over Idlib to thwart the ambitions of Syrian Kurds to create a link between northeastern Syria and the Mediterranean. But, in order to do so, he must either overcome Tahrir Al-Sham fighters or strike a deal with them. Both tasks seem untenable at the moment.
It is difficult to believe that Turkey’s mission in Idlib will be straightforward. For one, the humanitarian cost of military action will be high. Russian and Syrian jets have been accused of killing tens of civilians in Idlib and targeting hospitals and residential areas in the past few weeks. With their backs against the wall, rebel fighters in Idlib know that they will be fighting for their lives since there are no safe havens left.
Interestingly enough, a senior Syrian opposition figure, Mohammed Sabra, criticized the Turkish operation and the FSA’s participation, saying that Ankara’s incursion in Idlib has nothing to do with fighting terror.
Erdogan may have walked into a trap of his own making. Russia, Iran, the US and the Syrian regime will let him do the dirty work in Idlib and carry the blame for the hefty humanitarian consequences.
• Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010