Turkey concerned of spillover effects of large-scale Idlib operation
Ankara’s number one agenda item is economy and the unstoppable plunge of the Turkish Lira. In second place is the Syrian army’s impending large-scale military operation into the Idlib province of Syria, an enclave under the control of the armed opposition as well as jihadist terrorist groups.
Many of the al-Nusra affiliated groups, such as the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, were transferred from Aleppo to Idlib as a result of the Ankara-Moscow deal in late 2016. Later in 2017, Turkey, Russia and Iran have agreed to designate the Idlib province as one of four de-escalation zones with the Turkish army monitoring the cease-fire between the Syrian army and the armed opposition groups.
As explained in this column, Turkey is very much against the military operation because it can create a humanitarian tragedy if civilians are not be separated from terrorists. It is also concerned that it can trigger a new refugee influx from Idlib, where around three million people live.
One other concern Ankara has is the potential spillover effect of such an operation into Idlib. Senior government officials express their concerns that the Syrian army will not separate civilians from terrorists and will therefore hit residential parts as well as hospitals and schools on the grounds that these places are now occupied by terrorists.
“Idlib is kind of dynamite. If it explodes, the entire region will be thrown into fire. An operation like this is therefore very risky,” is the message Ankara conveys to both Moscow and Tehran.
Turkey’s proposal is to conduct detailed joint intelligence work to identify the positions of terror organizations and to try to convince them to leave their whereabouts. If they refuse to leave, then a joint pinpoint operation can be held against them.
That is why intelligence is very important and Turkey calls on other countries who might have their own sources in the field. In an interview with the Times, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has asked the United States to share intelligence over the jihadist groups in Idlib so that a pinpoint operation can be much more feasible.
Not directly relevant with this call, on Aug. 31, Turkey declared the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham as a terror organization while updating its terror list through a presidential decree.
From the Russian perspective, clearing the enclave from terrorists is also necessary for both the security of Syria, especially on the eve of efforts for a political settlement, and the security of Russia’s military bases.
According to diplomatic sources who closely follow the developments in the region, Turkey and Russia are in a very close dialogue and talks almost every day. Russia is well-aware of Turkey’s concerns and contacts between Moscow and Ankara are aiming at addressing them, sources say.
United Nations Secretary-General Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura’s proposal for evacuating civilians from Idlib is also on the table but concerns are there on how it could be implemented given the fact that the province is home to nearly three million people.
One thing is quite sure: The upcoming three-way summit in Tehran between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hasan Rouhani will prioritize the situation in Idlib, if of course the Syrian army does not launch the operation before waiting for the results of the guarantors’ meeting.