Under the deal, Turkey became in effect the protector and guarantor for Idlib — this has been both a blessing a curse. Although there are Turkish-backed opposition groups in Idlib, there are also extremist groups, notably Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), which is perhaps the dominant military force there. The most important Syria-Turkey crossing at Bab Al-Hawa is controlled by HTS. Many on the ground believe that, despite some tensions, Turkey has coordinated with HTS.
What might the Turkish interests be here? Firstly, its reputation is at stake as it does not want to be seen to be ditching its Syrian opposition allies. It is a moot point as to how much this is a factor for Ankara. Secondly, having Idlib as a zone of influence gives it a seat at the table for the serious talks, including at the Russia-orchestrated Sochi process. Thirdly, the deteriorating humanitarian situation and increase in numbers of displaced people in Idlib risks another refugee surge into Turkey.
Finally, and almost certainly most significantly, Turkey wants to maintain a veto over any attempt to secure Kurdish aspirations in Syria, and even marshal Syrian opposition forces for this end. Currently, Kurdish groups with their partners control around 25 percent of Syrian territory. Many Syrians in Idlib fear that their futures will be surrendered to the regime in a dark deal to deny the Kurds any semi-autonomous areas. After all, Turkey has no real strategic interest in Idlib itself. Already many see this as a repeat of when Turkey gave up Aleppo in return for Al-Bab, the area controlled by Turkish-backed forces that drove a huge wedge between the Kurdish areas of Afrin in the west and others in the east. How long will Turkish forces stay in this enclave, which is undeniably Syrian sovereign territory? President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened on Saturday to expand this area by expelling Kurdish forces from Manbij to the south.
Erdogan was very clear about his continued intent to take action against Kurdish “terrorists” in the small zone of Afrin. Turkish forces have reportedly massed on the borders of Afrin, itching to take on the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which took it over from the regime in 2012. It is Russia that has so far prevented any such incursions, although Turkish shelling is far from uncommon and, whilst the US has bases in the areas controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces to the east, there are no American forces in Afrin. Its vulnerability is clear. It may well be the start of the next phase — a Turkish attempt to crush the YPG in Syria permanently. The Russian role remains key. Its forces are still smarting after a mass drone attack on its bases on Jan. 6. President Vladimir Putin declared victory in Syria last month and, with presidential elections in March, would not like to be proved wrong.
Whether or not the Astana talks are disintegrating does not remove the absolute requisite for the end of political charades and a meaningful effort to end the crises that beset the country.
The Syrian regime’s encroachment into southeast Idlib is clearly designed to link up with its forces in southwest Aleppo and is yet one more step in its efforts to reclaim every inch of Syria, no matter if it all becomes rubble. Whilst the Syrian regime cannot mount an all-out assault, it can erode opposition areas and deprive them of strategic assets like the Abu Al-Duhur airbase.
Great power games amongst these powers are of little benefit to the 2.5 million people crammed into Idlib. The UN estimated that more than 60,000 were displaced between Nov. 1 and the end of December, and that has now topped 100,000. It is winter and two-thirds of the freshly displaced are in makeshift tents, according to one agency. Most communities face huge food and fuel shortages, exacerbated as ever by Syrian regime bombing that continues to target medical facilities. Turkey is raising the alarm not least to jolt the European powers to act, pushing one of the few buttons that persuades them to jump: The fear of a renewed refugee flow into Europe.
Major powers must redouble their efforts to kick-start a credible political process that can bring an immediate halt to the fighting in Idlib and elsewhere. Few positives can come of this assault and intensification of suffering; conditions that will act like a petri dish for further extremism in the region and for encouraging huge refugee flows. Whether or not the Astana process is disintegrating from its inherent weaknesses does not remove the absolute requisite for the end of political charades and a meaningful effort to end the crises that beset Syria. In the end, this will require the return to a Geneva process under the auspices of the UN — the only arena with genuine international legitimacy.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. Twitter:@Doylech