Ankara urges spy agencies to cooperate on Idlib
Following Russian warnings over possible chemical weapons attacks to be carried out by groups who will blame Russia – although that possibility decreased – the Idlib tension is nevertheless escalating.
If Russian President Vladimir Putin can convince Syrian President Bashar al-Assad not to start a massive military operation on Idlib until the Astana talks on Sept. 7 in Tehran between him, Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, it may give time for all parties involved to maneuver to find a bloodless solution to the problem.
That includes time for the contacts of Jim Jeffrey, the U.S. State Department coordinator for Syria, in Israel, Jordan and Turkey until Sept. 4, which might give a fresh perspective to the Trump administration before the Astana talks, set to be observed by the United Nations.
The province of Idlib, northwest of Syria and very close to the Turkish border, is partly (some 60 percent, according to intelligence estimates) under the control of terrorist and extremist groups. As part of a de-escalation agreement between the Astana group, Turkey had set up 12 military observation points (around 100 troops for each) to monitor the cease-fire between the Syrian regime forces and the “armed opposition” groups, excluding those affiliated with DAESH (ISIL) or al-Qaeda.
Some of those terrorist groups were transferred to Idlib from Aleppo when the city was evacuated to be given back to the Syrian regime. The al-Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group only is estimated to have nearly 60,000 militants in the city.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu has been warning for some time about the spillover effect of a possible military operation on Turkey, including terrorists who could cross into Turkey and another wave of migration on top of the existing 3 million Syrians in Turkey.
According to Hüsnü Mahalli, a Syrian journalist living in Turkey and who has a variety of sources from the field, told Cumhuriyet newspaper the real problem regarding the Idlib crisis could be the foreign terrorist fighters among the native jihadists.
He claims the number of foreign terrorist fighters could be as high as 15,000. Mahalli says “some 600 of them are from European countries, 6,000 Chechens and 7,000 ‘Turkistanis,’” meaning from Central Asia, not only from Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan but China and Russia as well.
If considered that Chechen terror groups are already a major problem for Russia, and since Chechnya is in the neighborhood of Turkey, which also has a Chechen-origin population, it can be understood better why Russia and Turkey are more sensitive than all the other countries. Turkey also wants the return of Syrian refugees to their countries soon, if there is no threat against them either by the terrorist groups or by the regime.
In an interview with the Times, Çavuşoğlu said it was difficult but not impossible to separate terrorists from the native population since every country has its own agents in Syria and has an idea about what is really going on. He suggests there should be more intelligence sharing, meaning more cooperation between spy agencies of major actors in the region.
Çavuşoğlu particularly suggested intelligence sharing between the Turkish National Intelligence Organization (MİT) and the U.S.’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). That is the ironic part of the story; being two NATO allies, Turkey and the U.S. have less cooperation in Syria (mainly due to the U.S. cooperation with PKK-affiliated groups considered terrorist by Turkey), but MİT has seemingly good cooperation on Syria with the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).
The absence of diplomatic ties between Turkey and Syria is not a grave problem for the time being thanks to the Astana cooperation with Russia and Iran. Saudi, Israeli, French and British services are among the most active in the region.
The proposal to have closer cooperation between spy agencies in order not to cause another disaster in the seven-year Syrian war could be considered a positive option.