Untying the Idlib knot will not be easy for Syria guarantors
The last few weeks have observed a hectic Syria diplomacy between relevant regional actors and global powers over a potential large-scale military operation into the rebel-held Idlib province.
Turkey, the United States and prominent European powers have also expressed concerns over another chapter in never-ending humanitarian tragedies in Syria by the regime and their supporters, Russia and Iran. The United Nations has also issued several statements expressing its humanitarian concerns in the province, which would kick just another massive influx apart from scores of casualties.
The Syrian army has long been carrying out its preparations and deployments for a large scale attack in order to capture the last rebel-held enclave in western Syria. Russia has long been lending aerial support to regime forces while some Iran-led contingents are also in the field and provide important military support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army. Moreover, Russia resumed its aerial campaign on the outskirts of the Idlib province on Sept. 4 after a 22-day break.
With multifaceted concerns over a military operation in Idlib, Turkey has been playing a crucial role in the last few days to avoid or at least to postpone the regime’s offensive.
Turkey’s situation is very sensitive: It is a part of the Astana Process along with Russia and Iran. Three guarantor countries were responsible for creating de-escalation zones in Syria in a bid to enhance the ceasefire between regime forces and opposition groups. In line with an agreement last year, Turkey had built 12 observation posts inside Idlib while Russia and Iran had their posts outside the province.
Turkey intensified its diplomatic efforts with France and Germany as well as the U.S. on Idlib while continuing military and intelligence engagement with Russia almost on a daily basis. Technical talks between relevant government and security bodies of Turkey and Russia continue with the objective of finding a solution to the mess created in the Idlib province. Russian authorities say they are paying attention to Turkey’s preoccupations over Idlib but the presence of jihadist terror organizations cannot be tolerated forever.
It is believed the number of heavily armed al-Nusra affiliated terror groups under different names are much more than 10,000. It is a multinational group of terrorists and that includes jihadist terror units from Chechnya and the Xinjiang autonomous region and that is why both Russia and China support a military initiative.
Russia wants to secure its bases in Syria by eliminating all terrorists inside the country. Obviously, like China, it does not want to face a new version of jihadist terror in its homeland at the hands of terrorists who would flee Syria.
All these aspects of the Idlib knot make the upcoming summit by the three Astana Process leaders, namely Turkey, Russia and Iran, a very complicated one with no predictable results. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will surely try to convince Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Iranian Hasan Rouhani that avoiding the operation is the only way to reduce potential civilian losses.
It will offer a new effort between intelligence groups to separate terrorists from civilians so that pinpoint operations can jointly be held. Turkey is concerned opposition groups could also be targeted in the operation.
However, the Russian-Syrian duo seems to be very determined in launching a military offensive into the province to eliminate terrorists and to consolidate the regime’s control in western Syria before efforts for a political settlement commence.
The Russian military strike on Sept. 4 is a clear message to this end, leaving not much hope for diplomacy. If launched despite Ankara’s concerns, the military offensive would de facto end the Astana Process, as often stated by Turkish officials.
Russia’s decision on Idlib will surely lead to a re-definition of its cooperation with Turkey in the Syrian theater.