Turkey is banking on summit diplomacy to head off Idlib battle

Ankara is treading carefully in its efforts to prevent another refugee influx as it does not want to upend its alliance with Russia.
Sunday 19/08/2018
A Turkish truck, carrying cement blocks typically used for blast walls, waits to cross through the Syrian Bab al-Hawa crossing, on August 3. (AFP)
Preparing for the new wave. A Turkish truck, carrying cement blocks typically used for blast walls, waits to cross through the Syrian Bab al-Hawa crossing, on August 3. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Turkey hopes to use upcoming international meetings on Syria to head off an expected onslaught by Syrian government troops in the border province of Idlib that could send hundreds of thousands of people fleeing into Turkish territory.

Ankara is treading carefully in its efforts to prevent another refugee influx because it does not want to upend its alliance with Russia in the middle of a row with the United States that has fuelled a currency crisis in Turkey.

The United Nations said up to 2.5 million people could be displaced by fighting in Idlib, the last rebel-held area in Syria where opposition fighters and their families from other parts of the war-torn country have found refuge. Syria’s government, backed by Russia and Iran, said it wants to fight “terrorists” in Idlib and return the province to Damascus’s control.

Under an agreement with Russia and Iran, Turkey has built 12 observation posts in Idlib and deployed about 1,000 soldiers in the province on the Turkish border.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said diplomatic and military efforts in Idlib had been accelerated to avoid a “catastrophe” like those in other parts of Syria. Turkey closed its border with Idlib but the United Nations is asking Ankara to allow refugees passage if the expected fighting drives civilians from their homes.

Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin called on Damascus to stop preparations for the attack on Idlib. Kalin said there is a meeting planned for early September in Tehran and to be attended by Erdogan, Russian leader Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Erdogan has said another summit, bringing together the leaders of Turkey, Russia, Germany and France, is to take place in Istanbul on September 7.

Also in early September, the United Nations will have talks with Turkey, Russia and Iran in Geneva about the formation of a committee that would write a new constitution for a post-war Syria.

Turkey’s immediate goal is to gain time and to convince Russia to restrain Syrian forces in Idlib but it is unclear whether Moscow is willing or able to put the necessary pressure on Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“It would be a massacre to bomb Idlib, civilians, hospitals, schools just because there are terrorists,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on August 14 during talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Ankara. Reports quoting Syrian opposition activists claim Turkish forces were equipping their observation posts in Idlib with anti-aircraft weapons to deter possible air strikes by Damascus.

As a long-time supporter of several rebel groups operating in Idlib, Turkey faces the task of disarming some of the militias under agreements with Russia and Iran but that is proving difficult. Reports said Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group linked to al-Qaeda that is the dominant rebel force in Idlib, rejected Ankara’s demand to disband and integrate into a pro-Turkish rebel force in the area.

“We need to differentiate between moderate rebels and radicals,” Cavusoglu said. “The local people and the moderate rebels are very disturbed by these terrorists so we need to fight against them all together.”

Erdogan has suggested that Turkey was willing to carve out “safe zones” in northern Syria to house refugees from Idlib. “God willing soon we will have liberated more places and made more areas safe,” Erdogan said in a speech August 12. In two separate incursions into Syria since 2016, Turkish troops have secured control over areas in Afrin, to the north of Idlib, and in Jarabulus, farther to the east.

After years of caring for up to 3.5 million Syrian refugees at a cost of $32 billion, as indicated by government figures, public sentiment in Turkey is turning against the Syrians. During the campaign for elections in June, Erdogan promised the refugees would go home soon. Ankara said several hundred thousand Syrians have returned to their country to settle in Afrin and Jarabulus.

A new Turkish intervention to secure another part of northern Syria is unlikely, however, said Joe Macaron, a fellow at the Arab Centre in Washington. He said Erdogan’s statement about new “safe zones” was primarily for domestic consumption because the president was trying to reassure Turks the government would prevent a new mass inflow of Syrians. “Turkish forces have reached their limits in northern Syria,” Macaron wrote via e-mail.

Erdogan would not risk his partnership with Russia over Idlib, Macaron added. “Russia and Turkey are closer more than ever and in a united front against US sanctions on both countries,” he wrote. “Idlib might test but will not break their alliance.”

Given that priority, Turkey can be expected to seek compromise solutions. “Erdogan is vulnerable now and needs Russia’s backing to survive the trade war with [US President Donald] Trump; hence Ankara might have to be flexible on Idlib moving forward,” Macaron said.