Turkey given more time as Idlib lull extended
UN humanitarian adviser for Syria Jan Egeland last Thursday announced that Russia and Turkey had agreed to give more time for the implementation of their agreement at Sochi last month to clear a buffer zone in Idlib province of extremist fighters and all heavy weaponry. The original deadline was Oct. 15, but this extension has brought welcome relief to the 3 million people trapped in Idlib.
While the Sochi agreement deferred military action, its implementation has so far only been marginally successful: It appears that just about 1,000 militants have left the buffer zone and 100 pieces of military equipment have been cleared.
These were modest achievements, given that the province has nearly 100,000 opposition fighters with heavy artillery. Many observers had therefore been convinced that an assault on Idlib was imminent, but this seems to have been postponed for now.
Idlib is the last opposition-held territory in Syria. Its recapture will ensure the unchallenged position of the Bashar Assad regime and the integrity of the country, matters of priority concern for Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies. But, while Turkey is working with Russia and Iran as part of the Astana peace process, it has not shown the same commitment to Assad’s continuity or to Syria’s national unity.
Turkish policy prioritizes disrupting the territorial consolidation of the Syrian Kurds at its border east of the Euphrates, which has been facilitated by American support through the US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkey views the Syrian Kurds as allies of its own dissident Kurds. Hence, it sees their territorial consolidation as so serious a threat that it now prefers participation in the Astana peace process, placing itself on the opposite side to the US in regional alliances.
To counter the SDF, in May this year Turkey set up the National Liberation Front (NLF) — made up of the anti-Assad Free Syrian Army and Turkmen and other opposition groups — for the projection of its interests in northern Syria. About 60,000 NLF fighters are in Idlib. Turkey pushed hard for the Sochi agreement with Russia to ensure that the NLF would remain a viable fighting force to consolidate Turkey’s own territorial presence in northern Syria and, in time, confront the Kurds across the Euphrates.
The decision to extend the Sochi deadline is aimed at delaying military action to the maximum extent possible.
Beyond the SDF-NLF binary, the situation in Idlib has further complicated the situation in northern Syria. The most powerful militant group in Idlib is Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), which has the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra at its center. HTS, with 15,000 heavily armed fighters, is said to control about two-thirds of the province.
It appears that, in early September, Turkish officials engineered a split in the HTS, separating a moderate faction backing Sochi from other more extremist elements, who have vowed to fight until their doctrinal agenda has been achieved. The moderate section of HTS is said to be currently working with Turkey to firm up its interests in Idlib, even as the NLF stands poised to confront the HTS, if necessary. This fight has been postponed until the Kurdish question has been addressed to Turkey’s satisfaction.
The extremists from HTS are now represented by Hurras Al-Deen (Guardians of the Faith), formed by 11 pro-Al-Qaeda groups. It is associated with four other extremist groups and has set up a shared war room with them. From Oct. 13, they began attacking government forces.
The latest decision to extend the Sochi deadline is aimed at delaying military action to the maximum extent possible. Besides causing heavy casualties, it is feared that the assault on Idlib could encourage the US to initiate military attacks on government forces, perhaps using the excuse that chemical weapons have been used by the government.
Turkey has the highest stakes in making Sochi work and will use this opportunity to co-opt the HTS to consolidate its position in Idlib and to prepare for the attack on the Kurds. This could perhaps be avoided if the Americans were to abandon the Kurds and instead realign with Turkey to serve their long-term interests in Syria, and the Middle East in general, by accepting a permanent Turkish military presence in northern Syria.
That this is not a pipedream was confirmed by US National Security Adviser John Bolton, who recently referred to Turkey “occupying the northern part of Cyprus since 1974 amidst total international silence,” and noting that “nothing prevents it from staying” on in Idlib. American officials have also confirmed that the principal facet of their interest in Syria is not the fight against extremists but the removal of Iran and its allies, and that US forces would remain in Syria until this is achieved.
This scenario does not fit in with the interests of the Syrian regime, Russia or Iran, who all prioritize the destruction of extremist elements in Idlib and see a permanent Turkish and US military presence in northern Syria as threatening their interests.
What we are now witnessing is a short lull before the major conflicts to come in Syria, when matters of regional influence will be fiercely contested.
- Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian diplomat who holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.