What next in Idlib?
Those who were closely following the Syrian civil war were quite sure that the Turkish and Syrian armies would find themselves in an armed conflict one day or another.
To refresh our memories: Idlib is the fourth de-escalation zone where a ceasefire between the regime and opposition groups would be observed in line with a trilateral agreement by Turkey, Russia and Iran in one of the Astana Process meetings in 2017.
All three zones are now under control and all the opposition members and armed jihadist terrorists have been transported to the Idlib province since then. Idlib, bordering Turkey, has become an overpopulated region with around four million people where members of Tahrir el-Sham, al-Nusra, etc. are amongst local civilians.
Although the Sochi deal between Turkey and Russia brokered in September 2018 suggests continued fight against all these jihadist terrorists, it was very difficult to demarcate them from civilians. This has provided a sort of shield for the terrorists which could expand their influence in the enclave.
Russian and Syrian authorities, therefore, claim that the ongoing military operations are against those terror groups which have reportedly been attacking the Syrian and Russian army bases.
The political objective of the Russian-Syrian campaign is pretty well-known. They want to get control of the two very important motorways –M4 and M5- linking Damascus to Latakia and Aleppo. This will pave the way for the regime forces to cut the logistical supply of the terror groups while re-claiming territories that they lost in 2012.
For Turkey, however, there seems to be three challenges as a result of this campaign. First, the advance of the Syrian army puts the security of its military observation posts into danger. Currently, two out of 12 of them were left in areas under full control of the regime forces. In the case, the regime would get control of these motorways and more observation posts will be put under the same risk.
It’s understood that recent Turkish military activities in Idlib were aiming at establishing some checkpoints on these motorways to prevent the Syrian army from controlling the whole area. The Syrian regime’s attack on a Turkish convoy was surely a response to the Turkish move.
The second aspect concerns the success of the political transition in Syria. Turkey is well aware of the fact that the Syrian regime will continue to delay the works of the constitutional committee until it fully gets the control of Idlib. That will practically kill the endeavors for a sound political solution to the problem.
Turkey sees that keeping Idlib in the hands of the opposition is the last – although weak – bargaining chip against Damascus.
Thirdly, growing humanitarian tragedy makes life much more difficult for Turkey. Around a million Syrians have been moving towards the Turkish borders in the last months, creating new trouble for the government that already hosts four million refugees.
Turkey is hoping to get more support – financial and political – from the prominent European nations so that it can provide shelter to fleeing Syrians inside the Syrian territories. That requires an understanding with the Russians as well because there will be a need to set up another safe zone in northwestern Syria.
All these prospects correspond to the quality of future cooperation between Turkey and Russia. A week ago, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had accused Russia of the collapse of the Astana Process. On Monday, the Defense Ministry refuted the Russian claims that the Turkish side did not provide information about the mobilization of the convoy which was attacked by the Syrians.
Despite this troubled dialogue, the tension in the field could be de-escalated after a phone call between two foreign ministers, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Sergey Lavrov. “The Astana process is not fully collapsed but seriously hurt” was the main message of Çavuşoğlu to the Russian side when he was talking to reporters on Feb. 5.
The tension has been de-escalated but the situation is still very risky. The only way to resolve the problem before it turns into an intensified armed conflict between Turkey and Syria is to adjust the September 2018 agreement in line with the new realities in the field.