Turkey has no intention of fighting jihadists in Idlib
The Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) on Oct. 13 announced that its troops had entered northern Syria and had started to establish monitoring spots in Idlib province as part of the three-way Astana Agreement between Turkey, Russia and Iran.
The operation aims to create a de-escalation zone in Idlib in order to cement an ongoing truce between the Syrian regime and moderate opposition groups so that international powers may force the two rival groups to agree on a political solution through the Geneva process.
The TSK announced that the Turkish mission was conducting its duties in the region “within the rules of engagement” agreed by three guarantor countries in Astana.
Turkey’s Idlib move is the TSK’s second cross-border operation into Syria after last year’s Euphrates Shield Operation, which ultimately secured an area of around 2,000 square kilometers from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
One of the most important differences between the two is the fact that the Idlib operation is the result of an international initiative that also includes the participation of the Syrian regime. That is why Damascus has not filed an official complaint to the U.N. Security Council over the TSK’s crossing of the border into Syria, as it did with the Euphrates Shield Operation.
The United States and some prominent EU countries have also announced their support for the Idlib operation. Turkey’s opposition parties have overwhelmingly backed the move, although the main opposition has stressed that trouble emerging from across the border is the result of the government’s wrong Syria policies up to now.
One similarity with last year’s operation is that the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is also on the ground to clear the way for the TSK’s establishment of 14 observation spots inside Syria. Many in Ankara believe that the operation in Idlib will continue for much longer than the Euphrates Shield Operation, as the ceasefire between the various fighting groups is still very fragile.
One other difficulty in the Idlib province is the fact that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) controls the city center and its surroundings, with its few thousand armed jihadists. Turkish officials have made clear that the mandate of the TSK is not to provide security in the region and therefore they do not anticipate armed clashes with such groups. However, they also stress that the rules of engagement make clear that troops deployed in the de-escalation zones will be able to protect themselves and open fire against potential threats.
The operation in Idlib is still very fresh and Turkish officials say they are not in a position to say how it could proceed in the coming period. Of course, the main point here is whether the TSK will fight HTS jihadists, as the continued presence of this group only half-an-hour’s drive away from the border could cause serious security problems to Turkey.
Turkish officials are clear that they will not immediately try to sweep jihadists from the region but will leave this problem to be resolved in due course. Of course, no one expects these groups to simply evaporate with time in the region, but some Turkish officials argue that they may be persuaded to ultimately drop their weapons and integrate with the civilian population.
Turkey’s expectation is the resumption of the Geneva process in early November, when works on a transition government and the crafting of a new Syrian constitution could be started. In the end, the only way to make the Astana process meaningful and productive is to simultaneously launch an effective political initiative to end the years-long civil war.