The Idlib operation
Was it a surprise to hear the president disclose that an intense military operation was underway to establish a de-escalation zone at Idlib during the ruling Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) weekend Afyon gathering? Could Turkey allow a “corridor of terror” established all along its Syrian border? Indeed not. Did President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and all senior executives of the Turkish security apparatus not talk of Ankara’s determination to not allow the Syrian extension of the separatist Kurdistan Workers’ Party establish a “belt of terrorism” all along the Turkish-Syrian border for a very long time?
As for now, the Free Syrian Army—the Turkey-fed lesser Islamist terrorists—has been advancing in Syria towards Idlib while Turkish tanks and troops wait on the Turkish side of the border, poised to move in at any moment. Idlib, which because of huge influx of refugees from other parts of Syria, particularly Aleppo, is said to have reached a population of some 3.5 million people. The area has been under the control of the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee, led by the Fatah al-Sham Front (formerly known as the Nusra Front).
The operation came after last month’s talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana. Turkey, Iran and Russia agreed on setting up “a de-escalation zone” in the Idlib province, as well as in three other regions in Syria. The operation also came immediately after a trip to Turkey by Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Erdoğan’s visit to Tehran, besides a web of intense exchanges between the three countries. Turkish Chief of General Staff Gen. Hulusi Akar paid a rare trip to Iran last week as well.
As the operation targeted the al-Qaida-linked Levant Liberation Committee, high on the American list of terrorist organizations, Americans were also quick to express support for the operation, which when completed, according to Erdoğan’s disclosure, Turkey will be policing the city center of Idlib while security of the periphery will be undertaken by Russian troops.
Turkey’s Idlib operation is unfortunately unavoidable if Ankara is to play any post-war regional role. With American flip-flop policies and Iranian and Russian support, the Bashar al-Assad regime is advancing to victory in the Syrian quagmire. In Iraq, not only the Shiite element emerged victorious, the northern Iraqi Kurds achieved remarkable progress towards statehood. Over the past few days, Baghdad and the Iraqi Kurds arrived at an understanding to swiftly open talks to settle their differences. As part of that agreement, the central government is expected to end post-independence referendum sanctions on the Kurdish region. Turkey is compelled to be proactive if it wants to stay in the game.
The social and financial cost of this operation, however, might be very high for Turkey. As the latest tax package already heralded, the Turkish economy has been in some very dire straits. Even if “there could be no austerity in prestige,” the extravagancy at the presidential palace, as well as in public expenditure, might become a very serious headache for Erdoğan and the AKP as the country tilts towards mayoral, parliamentary and presidential elections in 2019.
Furthermore, in the Euphrates Shield operation, Turkey did not face much resistance from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) terrorist gang when Turkish troops advanced to achieve the aims of their operation. In Idlib—considered by many as the last stronghold of legitimate opposition to the Assad regime—on the other hand, al-Qaida terrorists will most probably wage a fierce defense. Worse, Erdoğan’s Free Syrian Army (TFSA) has almost no fighting power and the entire burden will be on the Turkish troops. Will Erdoğan be able to hide body bags coming from Idlib?
Of course, it could be explained with a simplistic “caliphate hallucinations” cliché, but the wrong foreign policy priorities and objectives of the past many years have left Turkey no alternative than to resort to force in protecting its vital interests while paying a very high cost.