Turkish opportunism in Idlib frustrating Astana partners

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Turkish opportunism in Idlib frustrating Astana partners

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan (R) and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. (AFP)

The heads of state of the three nations pursuing the Astana peace process — Russia, Turkey and Iran — held their 11th summit late last month. The meeting lasted just one day, with a joint statement being issued on Nov. 29 morning. The statement reiterated the leaders’ unswerving commitment to Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The three countries also opposed “all attempts to create new realities on the ground,” thus rejecting US plans to set up a long-term presence in northeast Syria.

Before the conference, Russia’s Vladimir Putin had indicated the need to promote the constitutional process by finalizing the 150-member constitutional committee that was agreed to at the Sochi conference in January this year. Though 142 names have been agreed, the remaining names have not been approved due to Syrian government opposition. This led the outgoing UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura to describe the meeting as a “missed opportunity.”

Idlib was the main topic of discussion at Astana. Nearly two months after the deadline accepted by Turkey to evict extremists from the area and finalize the 15 to 20-kilometer-wide demilitarized zone, there has been hardly any change on the ground. Jabhat Al-Nusra remains firmly positioned in Idlib.

The security scenario has also visibly deteriorated. There was a chemical attack in Aleppo on Nov. 24, allegedly by rebel forces, in which more than 100 people were injured, leading Russia to launch a sharp air attack on rebel targets in Hama and Idlib provinces. Much of the blame for this situation is being directed by regional observers at Turkey.

Turkey views with deep concern the steady consolidation of Kurdish territorial claims in northeast Syria through the US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). To counter this, it is seeking to bring territories in northern Syria — north Aleppo, Idlib and lands up to the Euphrates — under its control, with its interests being projected by the National Liberation Front, which is made up largely of elements of the Free Syrian Army and Turkmen fighters affiliated with it.

Given Turkey’s desire to remain in northern Syria to confront the Kurds, it has little interest in neutralizing Jabhat Al-Nusra, since this group could prove a useful ally against the SDF at the appropriate time. This opportunism has no takers among Turkey’s partners in the Astana process: While they may dislike the US presence in Syria, they prioritize the destruction of Jabhat Al-Nusra; hence their frustration with Turkey.

This in fact led Putin to vent his frustration with Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Buenos Aires last week, when he said wearily: “The situation in Idlib worries us, too. We see that our Turkish partners have not yet managed to achieve everything (that is planned).” Though he then diplomatically added: “But they are working.” Erdogan has asked for another summit with Putin to discuss Idlib, though few believe anything new will come from it.

Following the capture of Idlib, Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad will seek to extend his control over a sovereign and united nation.

Talmiz Ahmad

Idlib, the last bastion in rebel hands, is at the heart of the ongoing competitions in Syria between domestic forces and their external sponsors. For, with the end of the standoff in this city, the next phase of the brutal struggle to obtain spoils from the near-eight-year conflict will commence.

Following the capture of Idlib, Syrian leader Bashar Assad will seek to extend his control over a sovereign and united nation. Both Russia and Iran wish to maintain their own presence in the country, while wanting to see the Americans leave as quickly as possible. Donald Trump has spoken of wanting to see US soldiers back home, but his security officials view Syria as a theater to confront Iranian presence and influence, while also being reluctant to see Russia as the sole arbiter in Syrian and regional politics.

Ankara fears a military attack on Idlib, as that would create hundreds of thousands of refugees seeking sanctuary in Turkey. It also sees the Kurdish successes, with US support, as an existential threat. However, Turkey does not wish to cut its ties with the US altogether: It is hoping to persuade the US to cast the Kurds aside and use Turkey as its partner in Syria instead, leading Ankara to abandon its Astana allies.

Is this two-faced policy sustainable? The Syrian president is keen to initiate military action to bring Idlib under his control. Russia is certainly frustrated with Turkish pussyfooting with Jabhat Al-Nusra but is reluctant to wage war, as civilian casualties would almost certainly bring Western intervention, including bombings of Syrian forces, possibly even putting Russia in direct military confrontation with the US.

For the same reason, while Iran too would like to end Jabhat Al-Nusra as a military threat, it is not keen to provoke the unpredictable US president and, for now, prefers a low-key role, particularly since White House officials continue to speak of Iran’s expulsion from Syria.

These considerations suggest that the stalemate at Idlib will continue for now, at least until Turkey decides to intervene militarily against the extremist group. This will set the stage for the next round of confrontations in Syria, which will be as bloody and destructive as the first round.

  • Talmiz Ahmad is an author and former Indian diplomat who holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune, India.
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