Getting Turkey’s new Syria operation straight
President Tayyip Erdoğan received applause last week in parliament when he recited the lyrics of a famous Turkish love song - “I may come without warning, one night” – referring to a possible military operation into northern Iraq if the Kurdish autonomous government there does not step back from its decision for independence from Iraq.
A week later, a Turkish military-backed operation started into Syria on Oct. 7 to fight against al-Qaeda affiliated groups in the city of Idlib, near the Turkish border.A week later, a Turkish military-backed operation started into Syria on Oct. 7 to fight against al-Qaeda affiliated groups in the city of Idlib, near the Turkish border.So the talk was about Kirkuk in Iraq, but the walk is about Idlib in Syria. Why? Idlib is a Syrian city 38 km west and 40 km south of the Turkish border. It is so close that it is within firing range of Turkish Fırtına (Storm) howitzers. The city was taken under control on July 23, 2017 by a group called “Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham,” affiliated with al-Qaeda like its predecessor the Nusra front.At the time, media outlets close to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AK Parti) were talking about the possibility of a Turkish military operation into Syria, but directed to the Afrin region because of the increased activity of outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) affiliates there.
On July 29, Brett McGurk, U.S. President Donald Trump’s special envoy to the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or DAESH, accused Turkey of “assisting al-Qaeda in Syria” at a conference in the Washington-based Middle East Institute think tank.“Right now, there is a safe haven for al-Qaeda just next to the Turkish border,” McGurk had said. “We are going to discuss this subject with the Turks. In some other areas the borders have been sealed and nobody has been able to cross, and we need to think of doing the same thing in Idlib.”
The Turkish Foreign Ministry strongly condemned McGurk’s statement and asked for a correction.No correction was made, but just two months after the exchange of words the Turkish army started its second major Syria operation in two years - the target being the al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist elements in Idlib.In the meantime there was the Astana agreement on Sept. 15 between Turkey, Russia and Iran. Accordingly, the aim was to create another “de-escalation” zone in Idlib, where the three countries, with the approval of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, would have 500 troops each to control the ceasefire between pro and anti-Assad armed groups.
The Idlib operation actually intends to secure a corridor for Turkish troops to go into Idlib, and the fight with Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham, or al-Qaeda, is being carried out by the Free Syria Army (FSA) under the protection of the Turkish and Russian military. Like the Euphrates Shield Operation in 2016, it would not be possible for Turkey to carry out a military operation in Syria without Russian (and indirectly, Syrian) consent. The idea is that after the FSA clears the part of Idlib still under al-Qaeda control, Turkish troops will go into the city as ceasefire observers.Perhaps that is the reason why National Intelligence Organization (MİT) chief Hakan Fidan posed for the cameras together with Chief of General Staff Hulusi Akar in the operation room for the move: The FSA has been supported by the MİT (together with the CIA until earlier this year).
Is it confusing? Yes. And that is how it should be. Because this is the confusing outlook when you try to get the facts straight:- It was Turkey’s NATO ally, the U.S., which complained about increasing al-Qaeda activity in Idlib. It is the same ally which is currently cooperating with the YPG - the Syrian branch of Turkey’s archenemy, the PKK - against ISIL. The PKK is also designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S.- It was Turkey (with U.S. help) that supported the FSA against the al-Assad regime in Syria. It was the U.S. that withdrew from anti-Assad efforts in order to cooperate with Russia, al-Assad’s biggest ally, in order to wage a joint fight against ISIL and al-Qaeda terrorists.- The MİT joint program with the CIA failed because the U.S. decided to drop anti-Assad activities and focus instead only on ISIL. However, most of the FSA fighters, and also many jihadist rebels, refused to drop their anti-Assad targets in favor of fighting against al-Qaeda and ISIL.- Turkey is now doing what the U.S. would have liked it to do some months ago: The FSA has been convinced to fight against al-Qaeda and ISIL only, dropping the anti-Assad fight from being a priority with the backing of Turkey.
The difference is that Turkey is carrying out this operation with Russia, not the U.S.- A ceasefire in Idlib will mean a ceasefire between the FSA and al-Assad regime forces. Turkey is supposed to maintain control over the FSA, while Russians is supposed to control the regime forces and Iran is supposed to control the Shiite and Nusayri militias loyal to Damascus. The Idlib operation has once again turned Turkish public attention to Syria, in a manner that does not disturb either Russia or the U.S., though antagonism with the U.S. over the PKK remains in place.
Meanwhile, the ongoing Iraq crisis over the recent Kurdish independence vote is still continuing, but it is seemingly cooling down. Baghdad and Arbil have decided to talk, following Russian, American and French mediation efforts, using the joint pressure of the Turkish, Iranian and Iraqi governments as leverage.
In Syria too, the outlook indicates that the distance and antagonism between Erdoğan and al-Assad is cooling, despite the strong rhetoric that both of them have used against each other in the past. This development is largely a result of the Russian presence, rather than that of the U.S.