Russia gives Turkey more time to find a solution for Idlib

Ankara is apparently confident that the immediate danger of an all-out assault on Idlib has passed for now.
Sunday 16/09/2018
Fighters from the extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) attend a mock battle in anticipation of an attack by the regime on Idlib province, last August. 				   (AFP)
Digging in. Fighters from the extremist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) attend a mock battle in anticipation of an attack by the regime on Idlib province, last August. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Russia is giving Turkey more time to end the presence of rebels in Syria’s Idlib province but a military build-up by the Turkish Army suggests that Ankara has little hope that an assault on the area can be avoided.

Following air strikes and artillery bombardment on rebel positions in Idlib, the fighting eased as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin prepared to meet on September 17.

Turkey wants Russia, the main backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, to call off an expected attack on Idlib, the last major area held by insurgents and home to more than 3 million people, most of them civilians. However, Erdogan failed to get Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rohani, another partner of Assad’s, to agree to a ceasefire during their meeting September 7.

“Chances for a cancellation of the offensive are very small,” said Kerim Has, a Moscow-based analyst of Russian-Turkish relations. “Russia is giving Turkey more time but will insist” to go ahead with the assault in the end, Has said.

Ankara is apparently confident that the immediate danger of an all-out assault on Idlib has passed for now. A senior Turkish official told Agence France-Presse that “an offensive, if there will be one, will not come before several weeks.” Has, however, said low-level military operations around Idlib were likely to continue. Moscow would wait until October or November before ordering an all-out attack because the Kremlin expects the crisis in Turkish-US relations to deepen even further by then.

“Comprehensive action will start at a time when Turkey desperately needs Russian support” and Ankara is unlikely to add a crisis with Russia to its difficulties with the United States, Has said. US sanctions against the Iranian oil industry starting in November are one reason why tensions between Turkey and the United States could worsen soon. Turkey buys about half its crude oil imports from Iran and has said it will not abide by the new sanctions.

Russia’s Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentiev, speaking in Geneva, said there was still time to find a non-military solution for Idlib but the envoy also suggested that Moscow’s patience was not endless. “Idlib province is… a sort of zone of responsibility of Turkey. It is their responsibility to separate the moderate opposition from the extremists,” he said.

Erdogan’s government is proposing to transfer extremist groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance led by al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, out of southern and western Idlib into the northern part of the province or to Afrin and Jarabulus, two Turkish-controlled areas in northern Syria.

That way, HTS would no longer be able to attack the Russian airbase of Hmeimim near Latakia, south-west of Idlib. News reports said Turkey would then deploy rebel forces of the Ankara-backed National Front for Liberation (NFL) to take up positions abandoned by HTS.

If Turkey can prevent an all-out attack on Idlib, concerns about an influx of refugees into Turkey from Idlib would ease. Deploying pro-Turkish forces throughout Idlib would strengthen Turkey’s position in the Syrian conflict. HTS controls more than half of Idlib, including the provincial capital, Idlib city, and key border crossings with Turkey.

Under an agreement with Russia and Iran, the Turkish military has put up 12 observation posts in Idlib and deployed about 1,000 soldiers there. Turkey “wants to protect its local rebel proxies and long-term strategic interests in Syria,” Fabrice Balanche a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, wrote in an analysis.

Balanche said the NFL could be the first group to be attacked in a general assault on Idlib. Such an attack would extract a heavy toll from the NFL, “damaging Turkey’s credibility with local allies who have committed to stand against HTS,” he wrote.

In an apparent effort to deter an attack, Ankara sent more weapons and ammunition to its allies in Idlib. Senior rebel officials told Reuters they had received more military aid since the Tehran summit. In addition, the Turkish military sent tanks and armoured vehicles to observation posts in Idlib. Turkish news reports said the army boosted its presence on the border with Idlib.

Working on a separate diplomatic track, Ankara stayed in touch with Moscow and Iran. “We are working intensively with Russia, Iran and our allies for peace and stability to be brought to the region and for a humanitarian tragedy to be prevented,” Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said.

Ankara, Moscow and Tehran are partners in the so-called Astana process, a platform used by Russia to shape a post-war order for Syria. After a meeting of senior officials of the three Astana countries with UN Syria Envoy Staffan de Mistura in Geneva, Lavrentiev was quoted by Russian media as saying there was agreement “in principle” on two lists of candidates that are to form a constitutional committee for Syria.

One list is from the Syrian government side. Another one is from the opposition. A third list, with the names of civil society representatives, is under discussion, the reports said.

Talks continued outside the UN framework as well. Senior officials from Turkey, Russia, Germany and France met in Istanbul for talks on Syria. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov travelled to Berlin to meet with his German counterpart Heiko Maas. Germany was ready to “take responsibility” in reconstruction efforts for Syria after the war, Maas said.