Russia holds the key to Turkey’s Idlib move

Russia holds the key to Turkey’s Idlib move

The office of Turkey’s Chief of General Staff on Feb. 15 issued a second statement regarding the de-escalation zone in the Idlib province of Syria and announced that it built another observation post in the province.

According to the statement, the Turkish military established its sixth observation post, Observation Post No. 8, in the Surman region of Idlib as of Feb. 15. This observation post, too, is within the vicinity of the area controlled by the opposition. Surman is very close, only 6 kilometers away from the regime-controlled area.

With this move, Turkey has established, over the past 10 days, its third observation post just next to the line that separates the opposition-control areas from the regime-control areas in the east of Idlib. Turkey, thus, has accelerated its efforts to bolster its military presence in Idlib.

Iblis was designated as a “de-escalation” zone in the Astana process that was initiated by Turkey, Russia and Iran. The Turkish army has been tasked with an important mission to make sure the cessation of clashes between the regime and opposition forces is in place.

The Turkish military carries out this mission through those observation posts.

The Turkish military established three observation posts last year between October and November just below the line that separates Idlib from Afrin where Turkey’s “Operation Olive Branch” is currently taking place. Those posts encircle the north of Idlib and at the same time, prevent any possible infiltration by the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) stationed in Afrin into the south through Idlib.

The last three observation posts, including the one that became operational on Feb. 15, are located on a different path. Those posts are set up on a line stretching from north to south just west to the border that separates the regime and opposition forces in east Idlib.

Those are the observation posts located in the town of al-Ais up in the north, Tal Takan just south of al-Ais and in Surman. The distance between al-Ais and Tal Takan, which lies in the middle of the line, is 20 kilometers, while the distance between Tal Takan and Suman in the south is 20 kilometers. Thus, the Turkish military has further expanded its presence into the south along Iblid’s eastern border. The distance between Observation Post No. 8 in Surman and the Cilvegözü Border Gate in the Reyhanlı district of the southern province of Hatay is 75 kilometers.

Turkey has already built six of the planned 12 observation posts in Idlib. Where will the other six observation posts be established?

No statement has been made regarding this matter. As part of its plans for Idlib, the Turkish military first captured the northern line and then moved deep into the south. One can assume that those six observation posts will be built on the remaining part of the line that separates regime forces from opposition forces. Thus, Hama in the south and Latakia in the southeast seem to be the likely candidate location to establish those remaining observation posts. Of course, this is only a guess.

A large part of Idlib’s western border borders the Turkish province of Hatay. We can say that the Turkish military is establishing a buffer zone between the Assad regime and opposition forces in the north and east in Idlib—and possibly in the south and southeast in the later stages.

What does this buffer zone mean? As part of the Astana process, Turkey is on the ground between the sides to prevent any clashes and observe possible violations of ceasefire.

An important point regarding the observation posts should be underlined. The efforts for establishing posts gained momentum after the telephone conversation between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian leader Vladimir Putin that took place on Jan. 31. Indeed, the statement released after the telephone conversation underlined that “the two leaders agreed to step up efforts to form observation posts.”

It would not be wrong to say the moves made by Turkey by taking serious risks in the conflict zones have secured strong support from Putin.

Given his support, it is possible to suggest that the Russian leader, at least in this conjecture, does not want to risk a large military conflict and its consequences that could be triggered by an attack from the regime forces on Idlib while, as observed at the Sochi meeting, Putin prioritizes a political solution to the conflict.

Thus, for the plans for Idlib, where Turkey undertakes important responsibilities on the ground, to be successful it is absolutely necessary that Russia must continue to keep the pressure on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and it must not allow the Syrian regime to violate the borders of the de-escalation zones. There is no doubt that this also true for Iran, which is the guarantor of the Astana process.

Sedat Ergin, hdn, Opinion