Idlib fighting and Turkish ‘safe zone’ plans throw cloud over Syria summit

Gains by Russia-backed government forces in the north-western province of Idlib had “changed the military balance.”
Saturday 14/09/2019
Caught in the middle. A young Syrian boy gazes from a small hilltop at the makeshift camp where he currently lives in the northern countryside of the Idlib province.  (AFP)
Caught in the middle. A young Syrian boy gazes from a small hilltop at the makeshift camp where he currently lives in the northern countryside of the Idlib province. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - An alliance of Turkey, Russia and Iran aimed at ending the war in Syria is under pressure ahead of a summit meeting as tensions grow over fighting in the last rebel stronghold in Syria.

The leaders of the trio, united in the so-called Astana process to bring peace to Syria, are to meet in Ankara on September 16 for their fifth summit since they started their initiative in 2017. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rohani are expected to review plans to set up a constitutional committee for Syria.

Launching the committee, a body planned since early 2018 that is expected to have a total of 150 members from the government, the opposition and civil society, has long eluded the Astana trio. The committee would be tasked with writing a new basic law and could prepare elections for Syria.

However, efforts by Ankara, Moscow and Tehran to form a united front to bring the war to an end after more than eight years are under stress as their conflicting interests in Syria come to the fore.

Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Levant Studies at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, a think-tank in Ankara, said, although it was possible that the meeting produces an agreement on the constitutional committee, developments in Syria could “cripple the political process.”

Gains by Russia-backed government forces in the north-western province of Idlib had “changed the military balance,” Orhan said by telephone. “Russia wants the return of government forces to border areas.”

While Russia and Iran support Syrian President Bashar Assad, Turkey is a sponsor of rebel groups fighting Damascus. Assad has vowed to win back all parts of the country but Ankara wants to keep its influence within Syria to secure a role in any post-war negotiations.

The role of the United States, which is excluded from the Astana format but controls much of eastern Syria with the help of Kurdish partners, is another complicating factor. Russia is keen to push the United States out of Syria and loosen Ankara’s already frayed ties with the West.

Before the Ankara meeting, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitor, said government warplanes bombed the southern Idlib countryside despite a truce. Mohammad Rashid, spokesman for the Jaysh al-Nasr rebel faction, said the raids intensified after strikes on a few positions in rural areas of western Idlib.

Simon Waldman, an associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society in London and a visiting fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at King’s College London, said while Turkey could hope for concessions from Russia on the Idlib issue, it was far from clear if those concessions would change much on the ground.

“Ankara often gets such so-called commitments from Moscow; however, what happens in Syria is determined on the developments on the ground where Russia’s priority is the victory of the Assad regime rather than Turkish interests,” Waldman said via e-mail.

Turkey opposes the government offensive in Idlib because it fears defeat of rebel groups it supports. Ankara is also concerned about a possible influx of up to 1 million refugees from Syria. Erdogan said Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrians, could not stomach another wave of refugees.

European nations, wary of a new uptick in numbers of refugees reaching EU member Greece in recent weeks, are watching nervously.

While the crisis in Idlib was brewing ahead of the Ankara summit, Turkey reiterated a threat to send troops into part of north-eastern Syria under the control of the United States and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia. The YPG has been a vital US partner in the fight against the Islamic State but is seen as a terrorist group by Ankara.

Turkey and the United States reached an agreement in principle last month to set up a “safe zone” in the YPG area that would address security concerns by both Turkey and the Kurds, who fear that Turkey wants to destroy their autonomy in northern Syria.

The agreement said the zone could be used to resettle Syrian refugees from Turkey. Erdogan has said around 1 million Syrians could be housed there and has asked the European Union to support the plan. Turkish and US troops carried out their first joint military land patrol in northern Syria this month.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on September 12 that Ankara was growing impatient and that the United States had started “a stalling process.”

Erdogan said earlier that Turkey would act alone if the safe zone was not established by the end of September, a warning Cavusoglu repeated on September 10.

Russia and Iran have both voiced reservations against a US-Turkish “safe zone” but Waldman said Turkish-US tensions were to Russia’s benefit.

“The reality is that Turkey deeply distrusts the United States and will accept nothing less than for Washington to abandon the YPG, something which Washington is loth to do,” Waldman wrote.

“Ankara is not in the mood for comprising over the safe zone. All Moscow needs to do is sit back and watch US-Turkish relations to further deteriorate and pick up the pieces.