As Turkey faces new challenges in Syria's Idlib

As Turkey faces new challenges in Syria's Idlib

One of the realities of the nine-year-old Syrian conflict is that one should never believe in promises made by warring parties when it comes to abiding by ceasefires. A ceasefire announced on Jan. 12 following another Turkish-Russian initiative for Idlib has been quickly broken by the Syrian forces at the cost of lives, with the number of civilian casualties and people displaced increasing.

The latest military operations by the Syrian troops supported by the Russian air forces seem to be one of the most violent campaigns with an obvious objective of eliminating radical jihadist terror groups as well as the last remaining opposition forces so that Damascus captures the last rebel-held stronghold in western Syria.

The regime now controls around one-third of the Idlib province and strategic M-4 and M-5 motorways, with signs that it will continue to advance towards the Turkish border.

The number of Syrians flocking to the Turkish borders has been recorded as 40,000 only in the last 24 hours as a result of heavy bombing by the Russian and Syrian forces, according to Anadolu Agency. The humanitarian tragedy is constantly growing and extending aid to those who are in need inside Idlib province is nearly impossible.

The situation is getting graver every passing day. A much-anticipated statement from the United States on the recent developments in Idlib was made on Jan. 28. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described the situation in the enclave as grave and accused Russian and Syrian troops of “conducting indiscriminate aerial bombardment and ground attacks that have trapped thousands of civilians under bombardment in Marat an-Numan, leaving them nowhere to flee.”

“The United States is prepared to take the strongest diplomatic and economic actions against the Assad regime and any state or individual that aids its brutal agenda,” Pompeo said, in one of the most strongly-worded statements on Idlib. As can be expected, this warning will fall on deaf ears in Damascus and Moscow which suggest that the ongoing campaign is against the radical jihadist groups.

The creation of once de-escalation zones in Idlib was a joint product of Turkey and Russia under the September 2018 Sochi agreement that stipulated a ceasefire between the regime and opposition groups. The deal does not cover the terrorist groups like al-Nusra, Tahrir al-Sham, etc. with the ultimate objective of clearing the region of terrorists. Turkey has 12 observation spots inside Idlib while Russians monitor the ceasefire from outside the province.

The Syrian military campaign was launched in May 2019 as Moscow and Damascus complained that the implementation of the ceasefire worked to the advantage of the jihadist groups which could expand their area of influence. Russians reported about jihadist groups’ attacks against its nearby bases. Turkey, on the other hand, has blamed the Syrian forces for the violation of the ceasefire.

The situation in Idlib was discussed during a phone conversation between Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. There was no statement from Ankara on the content of the conversation except for informing that the ministers have reviewed the latest situations in Syria, particularly Idlib.

A news report from Russia’s TASS agency, which has quoted the Russian Foreign Ministry, has said that Lavrov drew the attention of his counterpart to the ceasefire violations committed by radicals from the Idlib de-escalation zone.

“The Russian side informed the Turkish side about ceasefire violations committed by radicals entrenched in the Idlib de-escalation zone and stressed the necessity to separate opposition forces from terrorists,” the ministry said. “The ministers agreed to continue close contacts between the military.”

The report also informed that the two ministers discussed “practical aspects of joint efforts to counter terrorist threat” and ensure the de-escalation regime in the Idlib zone is in line with the Russia-Turkish memorandum of Sept. 17, 2018.

The Turkish sources describe the situation in Idlib as grave, both militarily and humanitarian. What’s worse is that they have not much to do to reverse the picture. (In a statement right after the ceasefire, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had warned Syria that Turkey will take all necessary measures to maintain ceasefire should the regime forces attempt to break it.)

It will be highly difficult for Turkey to challenge Russia on Idlib in light of their cooperation in Libya. As this column had written a few times in the past, Russians have an obvious upper hand against Turkey and use this in Idlib to the full. While doing so, they are also offering an honorable exit. A recent meeting between Turkish and Syrian intelligence chiefs should be read within this context. For many in Ankara, starting a dialogue with Syria would be inevitable in the coming period and even much before with Israel or Egypt.

The immediate question, of course, is about the future of the Turkish troops inside Idlib. Defense Minister Hulusi Akar vowed on Jan. 5 that withdrawing from Idlib is non-negotiable. But one can question the mandate of the Turkish troops inside the enclave when the entire Idlib is captured by the Syrian army and there will no longer be a ceasefire to observe.