Playing with the Idlib fire

Playing with the Idlib fire

Hours after U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted about avoiding a military operation on Sept. 4 on the Syrian city of Idlib, the Russian and Syrian militaries resumed attacks after 22 days. 

Russia’s message is clear. President Vladimir Putin does not want to lose time letting terrorist elements in Idlib embed with the civilian population, spread violence elsewhere and use civilians as human shelters against possible attacks, while also not caring much about the possible collateral damage. After the air raids, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Idlib had become “a nest of terrorists” and hitting them should not stop diplomatic efforts, still pointing at the conference of the Astana group in Tehran on Sept. 7, where Putin, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani will meet, with Idlib being the top priority on their agenda.

Turkey has been objecting to the resumption of military operations for two main reasons:

* Another wave of migration: Idlib is in the northwest of Syria and very close to the Turkish border. Under pressure, Turkey could be the shortest way for civilians to escape from the clashes. Volkan Bozkır, the head of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Turkish Parliament, said on CNN Türk on Sept. 4 that Ankara is concerned about some 800,000 more Syrians who could move to Turkey, on top of the 3 million already living there.

* Terrorist infiltration: There are an estimated 60,000 armed jihadists in and around Idlib controlling more than half of the city. This is the biggest number of Daesh (ISIL) and el-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists in Syria. Almost 15,000 of them are not from Syria, Iraq or other Arab countries, as reported. They are foreign terrorist fighters, some of them from European countries, but a majority from Chechnya or Central Asian republics, Russia and China. If those terrorists manage to get out of Idlib, they might want to go back to their countries. That is a problem for all those countries and Turkey, which is a country on the transit route.

Turkey has been deploying more troops, tanks, artillery and armored vehicles as precaution against possible consequences of a large-scale military operation on Idlib, and also as a measure to protect its 12 military observation posts set up around Idlib as part of a cease-fire deal brokered by the Astana group.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu recently said it was difficult but possible to separate terrorists from civilians in Idlib through better intelligence-sharing between the countries involved.

As U.S. special representative for Syria Jim Jeffrey was having contacts with Turkish officials on Sept. 4 in Ankara, the last stop in his tour after Israel and Jordan, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Çavuşoğlu to discuss the situation following the Russian attack. U.N. special envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said after the telephone contact that diplomacy between Turkey and Russia could be key to the Syria problem, as tension escalates.

Turkey, US discuss Syria amid Idlib row