Turkey comes under pressure to prevent major violence in Idlib

Some observers doubt that Turkey is genuinely interested in weakening radical rebel forces in Idlib.
Sunday 24/03/2019
A Turkish military vehicle drives on a patrol along a road in a demilitarised zone near the village of Ishtabraq in the mostly rebel held northern Idlib province, March 17. (AFP)
Double game? A Turkish military vehicle drives on a patrol along a road in a demilitarised zone near the village of Ishtabraq in the mostly rebel held northern Idlib province, March 17. (AFP)

BERLIN - Turkey is coming under increased pressure to secure a shaky ceasefire in the north-western Syrian province of Idlib.

Under a Russian-Turkish deal reached last September, Turkey was to disarm jihadist groups that control Idlib, the last rebel-held province in Syria after eight years of war. The government in Damascus vowed to retake Idlib but an all-out offensive could trigger a humanitarian crisis among the nearly 4 million people living in the region and send a new wave of refugees into Turkey.

The Syrian Army has escalated its shelling of the enclave since early February. The situation intensified recently with extensive bombardments by Syrian artillery and Russian warplanes.

The attacks have killed dozens of civilians and led to tens of thousands of people fleeing to camps and towns closer to the Turkish border, local reports said. The Syrian Army denied targeting civilians, saying it is responding to attacks by al-Qaeda-inspired fighters trying to control the area. Most of Idlib is controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a jihadist faction that has ties with al-Qaeda.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar announced the start of patrols by Turkish troops inside the demilitarised zone in Idlib set up in last year’s agreement with Russia. At the same time, Russia would patrol the border area between Idlib and the rest of Syria, Akar told the state-run Turkish news agency Anadolu. Under the agreement with Russia, Turkey has set up 12 military observation posts around Idlib. The posts were recently reinforced amid escalating clashes.

These initiatives may not be enough to stabilise the situation in Idlib and to prevent a government offensive, analysts said.

“Turkey is trying to mollify growing Russian concerns about the implementation of the Idlib arrangement with the start of coordinated, independent patrols in certain sections of Idlib,” Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East Programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, said via e-mail. “I fail to see how these patrols will remedy the central HTS problem, which will remain in place so long as no one puts pressure on them militarily.”

Syrian Defence Minister General Ali Ayoub said the Assad government remained committed to regaining “every inch” of the country’s territory, including Idlib. Ayoub confirmed that Damascus was planning a “push” to retake Idlib and areas in eastern Syria under US control, reported Al-Masdar News, an outlet that says it “supports any lawfully elected government in Syria.”

In a report released March 14, the International Crisis Group (ICG), a think-tank in Brussels, said Ankara had to do more to stabilise Idlib. “Turkey should expand its patrols inside the Idlib area to cover the entirety of the demilitarised zone and reinforce its static observation points, thus discouraging violence by both Idlib’s militants and the regime,” the report said.

“Turkey and Russia should push both sides to stop their back-and-forth attacks. In addition, Turkey should press HTS to relinquish control of Idlib’s major cross-cutting highways and together with Russia secure the roads for trade.”

Under the Turkish-Russian agreement, Ankara vowed to open the M4 and M5 highways that connect the northern city of Aleppo with Latakia on the Mediterranean coast to the west and Homs and ultimately Damascus to the south for trade by the end of 2018 but failed to deliver on the promise.

HTS is reluctant to give up its grip on the highways because the group makes money by collecting tolls but the ICG said Turkey should tell the jihadists “that the alternative is a Russia-backed offensive it would be in no position to stop.” Ankara’s message should be that if the jihadists refused to withdraw from the highways, “HTS would be left to fight a battle with the regime and its Russian ally that it inevitably would lose,” ICG said.

It is not known whether HTS would be responsive to such arguments. “Turkey could certainly try and give back the roads but it is unclear if HTS would simply hand them over, raising the broader question — again — about how to actually defeat this group,” Stein said. He added that he did not see “either Turkey or Russia proposing an actual way to do that.”

It is also unclear how far Turkey is willing or able to lean on HTS. Some observers doubt that Turkey, a country that has been supporting the Syria opposition against the Assad government, is genuinely interested in weakening radical rebel forces in Idlib.

“Turkey is playing a double game,” said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official who is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think-tank in Washington. “Turkey likes to collect the diplomatic credit of saying the right thing while maintaining enough control over HTS to encourage it to do the opposite, all the while maintaining plausible deniability,” he said in an e-mail.