Turkey’s calculus in Idlib
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that his country would deploy troops into Syria’s north-western governorate of Idlib as part of the de-escalation zone agreement reached with Russia and Iran.
Turkey and Russia are expected to lead a military operation in Idlib, which borders Turkey’s Hatay province, to eliminate al- Qaeda extremists in the Syrian governorate. Erdogan said the military plan is a joint operation in Idlib between the Russians and the Turks. “Russians are maintaining security outside Idlib and Turkey will maintain the security inside Idlib,” he said.
Idlib is almost completely controlled by rebels and Islamist jihadists groups, including al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). While the two are driven by different geopolitical motives, Turkey and Russia both gain from their cooperation on Idlib.
Multiple reports suggested that Russia and Turkey were planning on dividing the Idlib governorate into three areas of influence. The first is the northern part, or the Turkish influence region, south of the Turkish border, where Turkish armed forces and Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels would be stationed. Another is the southern part of Idlib, or the Russian influence region, which would witness deployment of Russian military police. In both parts, the Turks and the Russians would fight to push HTS towards a third part, between the two other regions, where the jihadists would likely face their fate.
While Turkey and Russia clearly have divergent interests in Idlib, the agreement would likely serve their short-term ones for the north-west region.
For Russia, de-escalating violence in the southern part of Idlib would benefit its ally in Damascus by pushing rebels towards the north and cementing a secure buffer line that would shield the Assad regime’s heartland in the coastal region from any rebel offensives.
The Turks’ position in Idlib is more complex. Ankara’s priorities for northern Syria are seemingly centred on securing Turkey’s southern border with Idlib, consolidating the presence of Turkey-friendly FSA rebels at border crossings while containing Kurdish expansion.
Going this direction would likely serve Turkey’s long-term objectives of preventing the establishment of a Kurdish state on its southern border. However, the Turkish agenda for Idlib would not necessarily go free of challenges.
In northern Syria, Ankara supports many FSA groups, mounting to as many as 50 factions that have fought with the Turkish Army in the 216-day military incursion it launched into the north last year. Erdogan’s priority in northern Syria is to weaken the standing of the US-backed Syrian Kurdish force, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).
While the Arab rebels are interested in countering YPG expansion, their main concern is fighting the Assad regime. Ankara shifted the priorities of northern rebels last year to align with its own. However, this may not be the case for long, especially with apparent Turkish rapprochement with Russia and Iran, backers of the Assad regime and enemies of Syria’s Arab rebels.
Turkey is not as interested as it used to be in leading regime change in Syria or in supporting the rebels in a way that would hurt its national security goals. With the Trump administration suspending the US aid programme to the FSA, Syrian rebels are left with few options. Their operational capacity may continue to be limited in northern Syria and they are marooned to cling on Turkey’s ability to make deals with international powers.
However, the relationship between Turkey and Arab rebels remains, to some extent, mutually beneficial. Since August of last year, Ankara has been heavily involved in solidifying local Arab governance in the north.
Going forward after Idlib, Turkey seems intent on linking the area it helped FSA rebels capture last year, which includes al-Bab and Azaz, known as the Euphrates Shield region, with the aspired northern Idlib pocket. What is between these two regions is the YPG-held Afrin enclave in north-western Aleppo governorate.
Ankara’s vision most likely includes the capturing of Afrin. During the Euphrates Shield operation, which was said to be completed in March, Turkey prevented the YPG from connecting its Afrin enclave with the rest of its controlled territory in the north-east.
However, if Turkey goes towards Afrin, it risks clashing with Russian troops, who were reportedly deployed to the Kurdish enclave in March. It is unknown whether the agreement between Ankara and Moscow includes Russia handing over Afrin in exchange for southern Idlib. What is clear is that Ankara finds Moscow more amenable to work with than the United States, which antagonised Turkey by continuing to support the YPG.
It is likely that Turkey and Russia will cooperate in the Idlib de-escalation agreement. What is after Idlib is yet to be seen. The prospect of Russian-Turkish cooperation in northern Syria is dependent on whether Moscow can be flexible enough to drop its support of the YPG.
How the Idlib agreement will be implemented is highly significant for Turkish involvement in the Syria war and for the future of northern Syria.