With fiery rhetoric, raging battles and the contents of presumed diplomatic “deals” locked behind closed doors, observers can only speculate on what the coming days and weeks will hold. Despite the defeat of Daesh, in Idlib another terrorist menace is still lurking. In Afrin, the Kurdish question will come to a head. In both regions, international and regional powers will confront each other head-on while trying to force certain outcomes.
In October 2017, Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed in the Kazakh capital, Astana, on establishing a “de-escalation zone” in Idlib. The three powers had agreed in May on three other similar areas. However, the southern zone around Daraa became the subject of Russian-American agreements, while the northern Homs and eastern Ghouta pockets were also removed from the Astana process in favor of side agreements brokered by Russia and Egypt. Idlib remained the only swath of territory where Russia, the international power that dominates the Syrian battlefield, and Turkey and Iran, the two restless regional powers, could cooperate. The agreement in Astana ostensibly postulated that Russia, Turkey and Iran would post 500 “military observers” to Idlib to monitor the de-escalation zone, in addition to the token adage that all sides vow to fight Al-Nusra Front and its associates.
The “real” agreements struck in Astana, if there were any, were not made public. Journalistic reports suggested that the three powers agreed to divide Idlib into areas controlled by the Syrian government and others where Turkish-backed armed opposition groups would dominate, with the fault lines monitored by the aforementioned observers. But even such leaks do not provide satisfactory answers on several crucial issues. Ambiguity notwithstanding, soon after the agreement was made, Turkey occupied a pocket of land inside Syria, separating the Kurdish-controlled region of Afrin from Idlib. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan began to threaten the Kurdish militias present there, and elsewhere, with military action.
On the other hand, having announced victory over Daesh, Russia asserted that its next move in Syria would be to eliminate Al-Nusra Front. So, in early December, Syrian government forces began to move toward the Abu Al-Duhur air base, occupied by Al-Nusra and other groups, on the eastern edge of the province. In recent days, Turkey, having waited almost a month to make a statement, dubbed the offensive a breach of the Astana agreement, and the groups it supports are now engaged in the battle for Idlib alongside Al-Nusra. Shortly after this statement, Turkey began shelling the outskirts of Afrin, while Erdogan threatened the Kurdish fighters there with imminent death if they refused to surrender within a week.
As the Syrian conflict enters a new stage, the complex situation on the ground will most likely see international and regional powers confront each other head-on while trying to force the outcomes they desire.
In Afrin, Turkey seems adamant on invading this Syrian region in order to eliminate the presence of Kurdish militias, even though these groups are nominally a part of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. Erdogan does not hide his disdain for both the Kurds and the support they receive from the Americans, which to him amounts to an act of betrayal. He vowed to push them out of Afrin, and then move on to Manbij, with the final goal of destroying the SDF. The Afrin offensive will definitely worsen an already troubled American-Turkish relationship, but it will also take a toll on Turkey’s recent rapprochement with Russia, and could threaten to unravel the Astana process. Russia had once declared Afrin a de-escalation zone and sent military observers there.
Erdogan, alluding to both Russia and the US, said that Turkey expects from its “allies” that they behave “in accordance with the spirit of our deep-rooted relationship” during the Afrin operation. Both Russia and the US have remained silent so far, but the two international powers have a vested interest in preventing the Kurds from being slaughtered. More importantly, any Turkish incursion into Afrin will provoke fierce Kurdish resistance. Subsequent Turkish retaliation will lead to civilian casualties, hence complicating the situation further.
The raging battles in Idlib have shaken the already fragile Astana agreement. Syrian government forces, with Russian support, seem poised to take the eastern flank of the province. Nonetheless, almost two thirds of Idlib remains under the control of an amalgamation of Turkish-supported groups and Al-Nusra Front, with thousands of foreign Islamist fighters present there. It seems improbable that these groups could be separated in the near future, which means that, if Russia remains bent on destroying Al-Nusra, it will also hit the other groups badly. The military defeat of Turkish-supported groups could damage the Russian-Turkish rapprochement that enabled the Astana process in the first place. On the other hand, Turkey seems unable, or perhaps unwilling, to take action against Al-Nusra, even more so now that its forces are set to enter Afrin. If the de-escalation agreement completely collapses, each side will try to force an outcome in Idlib, which could lead to a renewed round of Russian-Turkish confrontation.
Speculation aside, these political and military entanglements over Idlib and Afrin between Russia, Turkey and the US will unfold in the coming days and weeks. Whether the interested powers are able to resolve the impasse remains an open question. If a conflagration ensues, it will be a terrible setback for the conflict resolution effort and will only increase the complexity of the Syrian war.
• Fadi Esber is a founding associate at the Damascus History Foundation, a private organization promoting research on themes related to the history of Damascus from the 19th century to the present. He is pursuing a doctorate in history at the London School of Economics and Political Science.