Turkey seeks to use Idlib deal to gain another foothold in Syria, faces high risks

Russia remains determined to get Idlib back under Syrian government control but is willing to give Turkey time not to risk a valuable alliance with Ankara.
Sunday 23/09/2018
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (Front-R) exchanges documents with Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar (Front-L) with Russian President Vladimir Putin (Back-R) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in attendance during a joint news conference in Sochi, on September 17. (AFP)
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (Front-R) exchanges documents with Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar (Front-L) with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in attendance, in Sochi, on September 17. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - In a high-risk move, Turkey is trying to expand its role in Syria by entering into an agreement with Russia over the rebel-held province of Idlib.

On the face of it, a deal struck by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin on September 17 is aimed at preventing, or at least delaying, an all-out attack on Idlib, a rebel redoubt on Syria’s north-western border with Turkey.

Ankara’s immediate concern is that an attack could trigger a new wave of refugees from Idlib, where 3 million civilians and tens of thousands of battle-hardened rebels have taken shelter from Syrian government attacks elsewhere in the country. The Turkish-Russian accord, hailed as a diplomatic success for Erdogan, makes such an attack unlikely for now.

Erdogan’s government, however, is trying to use the agreement towards its medium-term political goals as well. Turkish troops occupy two areas in northern Syria, around the cities of Jarabulus and Afrin. Ankara is betting that the latest accord will give Turkey another foothold in Syria and strengthen its hand in negotiations about the future of the war-torn country.

Following the agreement with Russia to create a buffer zone 15-20km wide along Idlib’s borders with government-controlled areas to the east and the south of the province by mid-October, Turkey is sending more troops into Syria. Turkish soldiers and Russian military police are to patrol the zone together.

“We will need troop reinforcements,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said. Turkish media reported that a convoy of 50 military vehicles, including tanks, entered Idlib from Turkey. The Turkish military already has 12 observation posts in Idlib under an earlier agreement with Russia and Iran.

John Landis, a Middle East specialist at the University of Oklahoma, said the Russian-Turkish accord provided Moscow, the most important ally of Syria’s President Bashar Assad, with strategic, military and political advantages.

“It demonstrates that it is not insensitive to human rights and the terrible human cost of an assault,” Landis said via e-mail. “Russia preserves its growing relationship with Turkey and it gains a 20km strip of land in Idlib that had many jihadist militias dug in. It also forces Turkey to confront the jihadist militias.”

In addition, the agreement leaves a basic principle of Turkish-Russian relations in Syria untouched. The Turkish military needs Moscow’s approval for everything it does in north-western Syria because the Russian air force rules the skies.

With Russia’s predominance unchallenged, a Russia-backed Syrian attack on Idlib may be off the table until mid-October but not completely. Moscow remains determined to prevent fighters from Chechnya holed up in Idlib from returning to Russia. Turkey promised last year to rein in extremists in the province but has not been able to do so.

Under the agreement, Turkish troops are to disarm jihadists of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) militia inside the buffer zone and transfer HTS fighters to other parts of Idlib. Russia said the disarmament will make HTS attacks on Russia military installations or the city of Aleppo impossible.

Ankara said “moderate rebels,” many of whom are allied with Turkey, will be able to stay where they are and keep their light weapons. There is no consensus between Turkey and Russia as to which groups among the estimated more than 60,000 rebel fighters in Idlib are “moderate” forces and which are considered extremists. Erdogan said radicals would be “determined with Russia.”

Still, Turkey is determined to explore potential advantages that could result from the latest agreement.

“If Turkey makes good use of the opportunity, it can strengthen its military presence in Idlib and make an attack impossible,” said Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Syria Studies at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, a Turkish think-tank. The agreement could result in a boost for Turkish-backed rebel forces in Idlib. “That could force the Syrian regime to make concessions,” Orhan said.

The Syrian opposition certainly thinks so. Abdurrahman Mustafa, president of the Syrian Coalition, a Turkey-backed opposition alliance, said the Turkish-Russian accord provided “an opportunity to put the Syrian revolution back on the track it started from, namely to regain freedom and dignity as well as make a complete change in the regime through a genuine transitional phase.”

Using the deal with Putin to expand Turkey’s influence in Syria carries high risks, however. “Turkey has little influence over radical groups” in Idlib, Orhan said. The question how Ankara is going to convince HTS to give up its weapons is unanswered. Any failure to live up to Turkey’s promises in the next few weeks could trigger the Syrian government offensive that Ankara set out to prevent.

Initial responses to the agreement suggest Turkey is facing an uphill task. Sam Heller, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group think-tank, quoted HTS official Abu al-Yaqdhan al-Masri as saying that “whoever asks you to surrender your weapon, he deserves most to be fought, ahead of others.”

Meanwhile, the Syrian government warned that the agreement was “time-bound.”

The International Crisis Group pointed out the Russia-Turkey deal was valuable because it offered “at least some hope” of averting a humanitarian catastrophe but could falter. “In addition to jihadist spoilers, Damascus may be dissatisfied with an international agreement that, in its view, keeps Syrian territory out of Syrian hands,” the group said in a statement.

“Ultimately, this agreement may still prove only a temporary reprieve before a final confrontation in Idlib,” the International Crisis Group said.

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