Developments shift Erdogan’s priorities in Syria

Keeping Idlib appears to have been abandoned in favour of overrunning Kurdish positions east of the Euphrates.
Sunday 20/01/2019
New direction. Turkish military vehicles ride at the Bab el-Salam border crossing between the Syrian town of Azaz and the Turkish town of Kilis, January 1. (Reuters)
New direction. Turkish military vehicles ride at the Bab el-Salam border crossing between the Syrian town of Azaz and the Turkish town of Kilis, January 1. (Reuters)

BEIRUT - During his high-profile meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin last September, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan promised to cleanse the Syrian city of Idlib of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) by October 15, 2018.

Three months later, not only does HTS remain alive but it recently expanded both horizontally and vertically through the war-torn city, making the Turkish-Russian demilitarisation agreement over Idlib look silly and very obsolete.

HTS has overrun pockets controlled by Turkey-backed groups, such as the Zinki Brigade and Ahrar al-Sham, advancing on the northern countryside of Hama. This is HTS’s single-most successful operation in years, raising questions about the seriousness of Erdogan’s pledges on Idlib.

Zinki warriors on Turkish payroll retreated to the Turkey-held city of Afrin, west of the Euphrates River, while 2,700 Ahrar al-Sham fighters relocated to the northern countryside of Aleppo.

Ahrar al-Sham and Zinki were, until this month, considered two of the most powerful components of the National Liberation Front, created by the Turks to round up Kurdish remnants on the Syrian-Turkish border.

After the United States announced in December it would be withdrawing its troops from Syria, Erdogan’s priorities in Syria seemed to shift. Keeping Idlib appears to have been abandoned in favour of overrunning Kurdish positions east of the Euphrates.

Erdogan may have realised that maintaining a permanent military presence in Idlib was something that the Russians would not allow in the long run and that the city was not worth fighting for because it technically cannot be included in the safe zone he has been carefully carving out of Syria, at a proposed width of 460km and depth of 30km. That project started in 2016 with the cities of Jarabulus and Azaz.

Erdogan in December announced the start of a new phase in his territorial ambitions, targeting Kurdish strongholds along the border that, he says, serve as a direct threat to Turkey’s national security. This was far more urgent for Erdogan than Idlib.

Idlib was unsustainable for Erdogan from Day One. He held onto it, nevertheless, for different reasons.

One was to increase his bargaining influence elsewhere and, second, to prevent it from being used as a base for attacks on his borders, either by jihadist groups or the Kurds, if it ever came under their control in the ever-changing dynamics of the Syrian conflict.

Third, the 2015 reasoning was that, if his proxies didn’t snatch Idlib, it would go to Iran and Hezbollah.

In Russia last September, Erdogan seemed to have very consciously promised more than what he could — or wanted to — deliver, going ahead with an extension of the “demilitarisation agreement” to sooth the fears of Germany and France, when he hosted German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron in Istanbul.

If the agreement is pronounced dead and if the Syrians and Russians advance on Idlib, Erdogan would not mind, only if he gets to carry out his ambitions in Ras al-Ayn, Kobane and Tell Rifaat, where he claims Kurdish warriors fled from Afrin last February. He did not object to their taking of Manbij in December, preferring to see the Syrians there than continued manifestations of Kurdish statehood.

His one condition is that the 13 Turkish checkpoints in Idlib are dismantled and unharmed and that no new refugees cross the border into Turkey. He had originally hoped to secure a Russian pardon for the 70,000 fighters on the Turkish payroll in Idlib, as a reward for their sacrifice in eliminating HTS and the Islamic State.

With that off the table — for now — Erdogan would rather relocate them to battlefield destinations east of the Euphrates and use them to round up the Kurds instead.

The Syrian Army has sent reinforcements to the northern Hama countryside, hinting, through Russian media channels, that they were preparing for a big battle in Idlib once the weather clears. The advance coincided with the HTS victories and increased speculation in the international community about the fate of Turkey’s October 2018 deadline.

If the Syrians don’t attack his aligned forces as they advance on Kurdish villages, Erdogan will likely not attack them as they advance on Idlib, also surrendering cities and towns that are on Moscow’s and Damascus’s hit list, such as Jisr al-Shughour, Khan Sheikhoun and Maarat al-Nouman, all presently held by Turkey-backed militias.

Erdogan and Putin are good at this game. In early summer 2016, the Russians turned a blind eye as Erdogan overran Jarabulus and Azaz and, in return, he did not lift a finger to protect his proxies in eastern Aleppo, when the Russian and Syrian armies retook the city that December.

In February 2018, Erdogan was given a go-ahead to march on Afrin, which lies deep within Russia’s sphere of influence, and, in return, he did not object to the sweeping battles in East Ghouta.