Turkish military base in Idlib: What implications for domestic politics?

Turkish military base in Idlib: What implications for domestic politics?

Sinan Baykent
Presidential Spokesperson Ambassador İbrahim Kalın recently stated that military cooperation between Turkey and Russia could extend to Syria’s Idlib province in the upcoming weeks and months. “The idea will be discussed in depth during the next session of Astana talks,” he said. 

It is no secret that Turkish officials had Idlib in their sights for a long time. Coveted mainly for national security purposes, the province of Idlib provided a source of hegemony for Turkey during the entire Syrian civil war. It served as a headquarters to different opposition groups such as the Free Syrian Army (FSA), Ahrar al-Sham, Fatah al-Sham and even Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, formerly al-Nusra). Given its strategic position and symbolic features, Idlib is nowadays at the center of harsh negotiations. While Turkey doesn’t seem to abandon its four-year-long investments in the region for free, Russia, on the other hand, wants to protect its ally Bashar al-Assad. Turkey needs Russia to ensure his presence in Idlib and thus to encircle the district of Afrin in the north, whereas Russia needs Turkey to properly keep an eye on what’s really going on in the opposition dominated areas. 

Turkey and Russia are likely to establish a joint military base in Idlib after the next Astana meeting. Nevertheless, Turkey’s task is far more difficult than Russia’s. Turkish officials will have to convince their partners on the ground who fought Russia and its allies since 2011. The FSA and moderate elements of Ahrar al-Sham would certainly follow Turkey on this path without any serious disagreement. But what about Tahrir al-Sham and radicals from Ahrar? Even though Turkey didn’t directly finance or support the old al-Nusra, everyone knows that there was a tacit understanding between the two interlocutors. Now this “gentlemen’s agreement” is at stake and Turkey would face a real danger coming from HTS if it agrees to cooperate with Russia in Idlib. In addition, it should be emphasized that Islamist circles in Turkey partly approve of the HTS since it didn’t carry any attacks in Turkey and especially due to its participation in a battle in the Turkmen Mountain where it fought along with Turkmen forces against al-Assad. There are also many Islamist intellectuals, journalists and opinion leaders who would disagree on the liquidation of vivid ground forces opposed to the Baathist regime. 

Cooperation between Turkey and Russia in Idlib would have three major repercussions on Turkey’s domestic affairs. First, army forces will confront HTS militants in Idlib, thus risking losses. Secondly, government officials will face serious internal security threats emanating from sleeping HTS cells scattered all over the national territory (mainly established during precedent refugee flows). Finally, the government will have to deal with critics coming from its own ranks and Islamist sympathizers.  

While everyone expects a substantial purge of crypto-Gülenists within the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) in the upcoming months, it is more than probable that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan would enlarge the scope of its “housecleaning” to encompass his Islamist challengers. As Islamist intellectuals began to raise concerns over recent governmental practices, the creation of a joint military base with Russia in Idlib could mark their ultimate rupture with Erdoğan.