Turkey, Russia meet once again for Idlib
Turkey’s Syria pre-occupation has many fronts. For eastern Syria, its concerns are on the YPG’s presence and its cooperation with the United States. For Manbij, Turkey is making an effort to implement a deal with the U.S. for the withdrawal of YPG troops the east of the Euphrates River.
Turkey continues efforts for the reconstruction and stabilization of areas in northwest Syria that have been liberated from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and the YPG. A recent bomb attack in Jarabulus has shown there are still jihadist groups in the enclave that need to be eliminated. Turkish troops continue to find and fight remaining jihadist cells in the region.
However, at the same time, the Turkish army launched an operation against a 300-men crime group, known as Abu Havle, in the Afrin province of Syria. The group, whose members were once part of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), has been engaged in illegal activities such as burglary and extortion and has disturbed peace and public order in the city.
At the same time, Turkey’s troops continue to monitor the ceasefire between the Syrian regime and opposition groups in the Idlib province following a bilateral deal between Ankara and Moscow that averted a large-scale operation into the rebel-held enclave.
The situation in Idlib is calmer in comparison with the first half of 2018 but it is hard to project that it will remain so in the coming weeks and months. The Russian media, who has been citing security sources, has been reporting for some time that the Ankara-Moscow deal is not fully being implemented due to the reluctance of jihadist groups to leave the demilitarized zone.
The ceasefire has also helped jihadist groups to reinforce their positions in the enclave against a potential offensive by the Syrian army, according to reports. They also argue that terror groups disallow efforts to separate civilians from them.
It seems Russia’s patience is also going wearing thin when it comes to recent developments in Idlib, which was one of the issues President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin have discussed in Istanbul. Although the content of these talks has not been publicized, one can suggest Idlib made a good portion of them as Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and National Intelligence Directorate (MIT) chief Hakan Fidan rushed to Sochi for meetings with their counterpart just a day after the two presidents met.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reportedly told Akar and Fidan that Moscow and Ankara needed to take swift decisions to support the demilitarized zone in Idlib and to act to defend the joint initiative. It is not yet clear what the Russian defense minister refers to by suggesting action into Idlib. He may refer to holding joint military patrols and establishing a joint military command in the enclave as suggested in the Turkey-Russia deal brokered in mid-September.
Idlib and other Syria-related issues will sure be on the table when Turkey, Russia and Iran will come together later this month in Astana. However, one can suggest that the status quo in Idlib will not last forever.
It is on Turkey’s shoulders to speedily convince the jihadist groups to drop their heavy arms and withdraw from the province in a bid to avoid full-scale military intervention in Syria, which would lead to a new humanitarian tragedy.