How the interests of the Astana troika converge in Idlib
The point that we have reached in Syria is clearly a desperate one in humanitarian terms. While the world watched, a country, a nation, a generation has been torn apart by civil war.
Behind this long conflict lie the interrelated interests of several regional and global countries. Some of them have directly intervened in the conflict, some have engaged through proxy wars, and some through their intelligence organizations. Experts on ground report that there are five countries directly involved, while 23 have played an indirect role in the war in Syria. The end result has been deep destruction.
The results of seven years of war are terrifying. One million Syrians, many of them civilians, have been massacred. A country with a population of approximately 22 million was mercilessly bombed and those whose homes were destroyed were forced to flee to other countries as refugees. About 7 million Syrians fled to more than 40 countries, including 4 million in Turkey alone. And so the latest flashpoint in the desperate conflict is turning out to be Idlib, a province in the northwest of Syria about 35 km from the border with Turkey.
On Sept. 4, Russian warplanes pounded civilian and opposition targets in Idlib, which is home to more than 3 million Syrians. Many of them had fled other cities attacked by the regime, which has now announced plans to launch a major offensive in Idlib.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned that an attack on Idlib, an opposition enclave, would be a massacre. Ankara is worried that an attack on the city will trigger a further mass exodus of refugees fleeing to the border. Turkey already hosts more refugees than any other country and the leadership is under pressure from other political parties not to take in any more.
The war in Syria is likely to occupy the global agenda for many more years to come.
Undoubtedly, Turkey has legitimate concerns about its own security and the possibility of a fresh wave of refugees. From the beginning of the conflict, the humanitarian crisis was the main issue to which Turkey attempted to draw the attention of the international community. Though bearing a heavy burden in hosting the refugees, and despite its problematic relationships with European countries, Turkey has tried to avoid becoming a transit station for refugees, to stop them from continuing on to Europe. One of the main reasons for the European nations backing Turkey against the US, despite several issues on which they clash, is the refugee issue.
Beside the refugee situation, Idlib is important to Turkey for another reason: It serves as a shield that prevents the PKK terrorist organization from expanding its area of operation in the war-torn country. Thus, the stability of Idlib is crucial in curbing PKK gains, which would add a new variable in Syria.
As for Russia’s role, the massacre in eastern Ghouta, and how the crisis was handled by Moscow at that time, is still in people’s minds and it is hard to see much Russian sensitivity over the death of civilians. Iran, meanwhile, is engaged in the war through its militias, carrying out attacks that sometimes resemble terrorist-type methods.
These three countries — Turkey, Russia and Iran — with their varied motivations and interests, and using differing methods in pursuit of their preferred outcomes, have held several rounds of peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, and elsewhere in an attempt to find a way to end the conflict.
It is not easy for Turkey or the other two, which are allies of the Syrian regime, to sit at the same table and find common ground on which they can all agree. However, so far the best outcome of these talks has been a memorandum of understanding on de-escalation zones in Syria, which have sharply reduced fighting in the country. Through this agreement, Turkey established 12 military outposts in Idlib, in which Turkish forces are positioned between opposition forces and the Syrian army.
I do not claim to be an expert on Syria. However one does not need to be a soothsayer to know that the conflict is not going to be resolved in Idlib, nor is a political solution going to be achieved any time soon through discussions about the province.
The conflicting interests of the many actors in the war lessens the prospects of a solution. The US has been engaged in pursuing ways to prove its power in the Middle East, Russia in maintaining its presence in the Mediterranean, Iran in securing its Shiite Crescent from Iraq to Lebanon, Turkey in preserving security and stability along its border, and Israel and other regional countries in maximizing the benefits to them from this mess. As a result, it becomes even more difficult to argue that a resolution in Idlib, or any other single part of the country, can be considered a light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.
The issue is totally enmeshed in the interrelations between the external actors in the Syria war. These relationships, whether between Turkey and the US, Russia and the US, or Russia and Iran, play a significant role in determining the situation in Syria. Unless a compromise can be reached between all these actors on certain issues, the war in Syria is likely to occupy the global agenda for many more years to come.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.