Turkey has dug a massive hole for itself in Syria
More than two years since Turkey’s first major military incursion into Syria we’ve reached a point where its plans are unquestionably falling apart.
As part of the September deal with Russia, Ankara agreed to oversee the withdrawal of about 10,000 militants from a buffer zone in Idlib province. That operation, which was to have been completed by October 15, was meant to avoid an expected onslaught by Syrian and Russian forces. The biggest armed group, the al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), intends to remain in Idlib, foiling President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s commitment to have its members removed. Turkey has designated HTS a terrorist organisation.
If or when Turkey can get the disarmed fighters out of Idlib, reports suggest Erdogan plans to use them to fight Kurdish militias further east in northern Syria, in Afrin and Manbij. But such a move would effectively see the militants face off against US-backed Kurdish militias, a scenario that’s clearly unpalatable to Washington. HTS is also at risk of breaking apart, and no one knows quite how Turkey can force it to do as it asks.
Next door in Afrin, part of a strip of land in Aleppo province referred to in Turkey as the Northern Syrian Security Belt, clashes rocked the once-Kurdish-majority city on November 18. A Turkey-backed alliance of rebel groups was fighting a former ally. Syriadirect said Turkish-led factions are pursuing Shuhada al-Sharqiya. It is affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, is said to be insubordinate to Turkey and is responsible for violations against civilians inside Turkey’s so-called Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield safe zones.
A Turkish-run displacement camp for 350 families also in Afrin province reports this month that tents have been destroyed by floods. Many of the camp’s residents are Syrian Palestinians relocated from their homes south of Damascus. They are enraged with Ankara for abandoning them. Food, bedding and clothing supplies at the Deir Ballut camp have been ruined due to inclement weather. Residents say that AFAD, the Turkish humanitarian arm, has been unresponsive to their plight. Lawlessness, by many accounts, is moving like wildfire through Turkish-controlled areas of northern Syria.
Under Erdogan’s leadership, Turkey has managed to suffocate both Islamic extremist activity and political opposition at home. In recent weeks, it’s gone a significant way towards repairing relations with Europe and the United States after one of the most testing periods in decades.
But what makes Turkey think it can succeed in bringing rebel groups together when Washington and a host of Gulf countries have repeatedly failed to do so over the past seven years?
Ankara is finding out that, like others before it, the Syrian battlefield is a complex and unforgiving arena. From 2012 to 2016, US and Gulf interests put hundreds of millions of dollars into propping up anti-Syrian regime groups in northern Syria. The groups received weapons, training, money and humanitarian support. Both carrot and stick have been used in the attempt to secure compliance from a constellation of rebel groups, which range from radical to moderate. Despite the expense and calculations, none have succeeded. Of the major foreign powers on the opposition’s side, only Turkey remains significantly involved.
For now, Turkey’s biggest concern remains how to get itself out of the Idlib quagmire without foregoing the lives of millions of civilians at the hands of the Syrian regime. The Syrian government recognises Ankara is at a disadvantage. Damascus recently sought to turn up the heat by claiming, through its minister for reconciliation, Ali Haidar, that “despite the postponement of military action, the political process is currently disrupted in Idlib because Turkey has not fulfilled its duties with regard to the implementation of the tripartite Sochi agreement… It is impossible to talk about reconciliation or deal making.”
Erdogan’s long-term plan for the thousands of extremist fighters his government claims it can persuade to leave Idlib is anyone’s guess. Turkey may hope to eventually integrate them into mainstream society along the borderlands and use them to keep Kurds in the region from causing trouble. Last month, Turkey announced plans to bring further territory in northern Syria under its control. But it ought to be clear by now that more territory in Syria means more headaches, not less.
Whatever its plans are, it’s become clear that Ankara is increasingly sucked into the Syrian calamity — exactly at a time when it should be finding a way to get out.