Will Turkey abandon its proxies in Idlib?
BEIRUT - Syrian government troops, backed by the Russian Air Force, are preparing for an offensive on Idlib, the last province in Syria held by the Turkey-backed armed opposition.
Syrian and Russian sources said the battle is expected in mid-September. A Russian naval buildup started in the Mediterranean on August 28 amid reports that the United States might strike if chemical weapons are used in Idlib.
Concerns ahead of the assault include how to appease Turkey, a country now allied to the Russians that has been closely watching Idlib since the outbreak of the Syrian conflict in 2011. Also, what will be done with the 1.5 million militants shipped to the province from across the country since September 2015? They make up half of the province’s 3 million inhabitants.
Turkey has set up 12 military posts in Idlib, looking to incorporate it into the buffer zone established by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, including the Syrian border cities of Jarabulus, Azaz and the inland ones of Afrin and al-Bab.
Moscow wanted to appease Erdogan’s territorial appetite but had no intention of permanently relinquishing Idlib, given that neither Iran nor Damascus would agree such a move and that it lies west of the Euphrates, deep within Russia’s sphere of influence.
With Turkish-American relations low, Erdogan is forced to cuddle up to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He apparently reasoned that it would be wiser to abandon his proxies in Idlib, as he did in East Aleppo in December 2016, if he is compensated elsewhere in Syria.
Unlike Jarabulus, Idlib would be difficult to keep, militarily and economically, and, although close to Turkey, is separated from other Syrian cities under Turkish control.
During a meeting with Putin in Moscow in late August, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu described militants — many of whom have been on the Turkish payroll for six years — in Idlib as “terrorists” who threaten Syrian and Turkish security. That same language has been used by Russian diplomats since 2015.
The Turks will look the other way as the Russian Air Force bombs them but has offered to separate the Syrian groups from foreign fighters of Idlib, using them to finish off Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Islamic State (ISIS).
This would apply to the Free Idlib Army, the Free Syrian Army, Suqour al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham and the Damascus Gathering, militiamen who were sent to Idlib after refusing to join the Russian reconciliation process in the Damascus countryside. They number 70,000 and are being grouped into a new Turkish-funded militia called the National Liberation Front, headed by Fadlallah al-Hajji of Faylaq al-Sham, a Turkish protege.
Ankara is requesting these militiamen be pardoned by the Russians and then join the government police and armed forces for the war on terror. A similar move happened in Eastern Ghouta last spring and more recently in the southern city of Daraa, where about one-quarter of the militias were incorporated into the Syrian Army as the Khaled Ibn al-Walid Army and used to fight ISIS. The Turks also suggested they get to keep their light arms and have a say in the local administration of Idlib.
Damascus is uneasy with the proposal but is being forced to consider it, under Russian pressure. A Syrian government counterproposal, which the Turks are considering, would include a temporary clemency in Idlib and the militiamen’s collective move to the borders of Kurdish villages and towns east of the Euphrates River and used against Kurdish militias, once the Americans leave the area, which is expected by November.
That would please both the Syrians and the Turks, who want to exterminate the Kurdish threat on their borders. The Kurds are also offering to join the fight for Idlib. A delegation from the Syrian Democratic Forces went to Damascus earlier this summer for meetings with regime officials. They offered to give up control of Raqqa, the former capital of ISIS, and Hasakah, in exchange for the restoration of medical, civil, and security services to the Kurdish provinces.
They seemed willing to accept the return of government control to the Kurdish provinces, seeing that the US presence in Syria is no match for that of the Russians, who are seemingly there to stay.
The fate of what to do with Idlib and its 1.5 million militiamen may well be decided at a meeting among Putin, Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rohani in September. Killing all the militiamen is seemingly not an option for the Russians, who prefer political deals rather than all-out warfare. The Iranians are pushing for a full-fledged battle, however, and so are the Syrians, abhorring the idea of having to do business with the Turks.
Neither Erdogan nor Putin wants a new refugee crisis coming out of Idlib, from which most fleeing civilians would head to the Turkish border. Erdogan cannot cope with them and Putin is trying to avoid that, especially as his top officials are engaged in a diplomatic initiative aimed at repatriating approximately 2 million Syrian refugees. He wants to go down as the leader to solve what has been described as the worst humanitarian disaster since the second world war and more refugees from Idlib would kill that legacy.