Cards Held by Turkey in Idlib
The tripartite summit, which joined the three presidents, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani, in Tehran failed to decide Idlib governorate’s fate. Contrastingly, it complicated the area’s equation further due to a Turkish-Russian apparent disagreement concerning the application of a ceasefire in the governorate, which might help spare four million civilians from a “blood bath,” which already took place in other Syrian areas.
Turkey’s attitude continued to be resolute as it held to staying in the governorate to prevent any military action, for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has linked the governorate’s cause with the Turkish national security not only to a political solution in Syria, which President Putin did not like, as he tried to take the position of the stronger party, who is capable of imposing his own political and military vision, thus refusing to conduct a truce with “al-Nusra Front,” which has been dissolved to be part of “Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham,” stressing that it is the Syrian regime that must be in control over Syria as a whole.
The Iranian party agreed to both sides. While Hassan Rouhani approved what Erdoğan has mentioned about a complete cease-fire in Idlib, he supported Putin’s idea about the necessity for the Syrian regime’s control over all the Syrian territories, including Idlib and the areas controlled by the Kurdish forces, the areas to the east of the Euphrates.
The Russian air force is yet targeting the rural parts of Idlib and Hama. On September 7, it attacked a camp for the Turkish-supported “National Front for Liberation,” in a step translated as a Russian message that Moscow is attempting to deliver to Ankara so as to speed up resolving the “al-Nusra Front” file or to leave the matter to Assad’s forces who will resolve it by a military operation.
The Syrian opposition is today counting on Turkey as to secure Idlib, following Erdoğan’s position concerning the governorate during the summit. Question marks hang over the cards Turkey is holding, which are supposed to save the governorate from the anticipated military operation, especially that “Astana” talks, through which the political process is run, are to be considered a failure if a military operation is to start.
12 Observation Points and Continuous Reinforcements
At the length of Idlib’s stripe, the Turkish army, in the past a few months, has installed 12 observation points, under the “de-escalation” agreement, conducted in “Astana,” and despite the fact that the points did not cast the “ghost” of the daily shelling against civilians and the factions’ military positions, they are yet a “reassurance factor” that Idlib would not be like the rest of the governorates, Daraa for instance.
The Turkish army is yet deploying military reinforcements to the points, which are not limited to weaponry and vehicles but rather they have included ready made police stations and concrete blocks, in addition to the Turkish special forces that have arrived at Murak, in a first of its kind development in Idlib governorate.
Mustafa Saijari, a commander under the “Free Army,” believes that the Turkish forces stay inside Idlib, announcing an ultimate refusal of any military operation and threatening to withdraw from the “Astana” deal, are considered some of the most prominent cards possessed by Turkey.
In addition to this, Saijari told Enab Baladi that Turkey’s giving up on the military factions, in case a military operation takes place, is like opening the door for battles and allowing the “Free Army” the possibility of advancing to new areas such as the coast, Aleppo and Hama.
The on-ground situation shows that Turkey is establishing for a long-term military presence in the governorate, weather through the factions it supports under the name of the “National Front for Liberation” or the forces it deployed and positioned at the installed points.
The Turkish “Sabah” Newspaper has presented the Turkish proposal for the Tehran summit, which suggests dissolving 12-armed faction, on top of which is “Tahrir al-Sham,” and starting the training of “moderate” opposition factions as to run Idlib militarily, stipulating that the Turkish army guarantees the protection of the Russian Khmeimim Air Base, rural Lattakia, from any military attacks.
A few hours after the end of the trilateral summit, the spokesperson for the Turkish presidency İbrahim Kalın wrote an article for “Daily Sabah” newspaper, in which he said that the presence of the Turkish troops in Idlib is the only guarantee to prevent a massive attack because the Russian jet fighters and the regime’s ground troops cannot risk an attack while the Turkish soldiers are there.
“We know that they do not care about civilians and the moderate opposition forces, but any attack in Idlib under the title of terrorist groups’ elimination can disrupt the Astana process,” he added.
Kalın stressed an important point, “Idlib is a ticking bomb,” which Turkey has the ability to stop and start a new process in Syria, for the international community has become serious about the Syrian war and has shown care for the Syrian people, as he put it.
The summit’s final communiqué provided for the guarantor states commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and the safety of the Syrian territories, and also obligation to the UN aims and conventions, in addition to refusing the creation of new facts on the ground under the allegations of combating terrorism.
The guarantor states have expressed their determination as to face separatist agendas, which seek to undermine the sovereignty of Syria and the safety of its territories, as well as the national security of neighboring countries.
The guarantor states have addressed the situation of the “de-escalation” agreement’s deal in Idlib and decided to treat it with the spirit of cooperation that highlighted the Astana formula.
The states stressed their willingness to continue cooperation as to eliminate ISIS, al-Nusra Front and all other individuals, groups, projects and entities that are affiliated with al-Qaeda.
Since talks started addressing Idlib and its fate, a number of foreign countries have opposed any military action in the governorate, stressing the Turkish vision which necessitates the protection of civilians and prevention of any additional displacement waves whether to Turkey or Europe.
Sweden, Italy, Britain, France, the Netherlands, Poland, Germany and Belgium have announced their support in the past few days for Turkey’s position to spare Idleb any military operation that could cause a humanitarian disaster.
This was mentioned in a statement on behalf of the eight states and before the security council’s hall at New York by Olof Skoog, the current Permanent Representative of Sweden to the United Nations, who added that three million persons in Idlib, including a million child, will be endangered due to any military operations, which is a source for a “deep concern.”
According to Firas Babili, expert of the Turkish affairs, Turkey has a European support for its idea concerning Idlib, which is a major card that Turkey is counting on in the meantime, in addition to the military points it spread on the ground.
In an interview with Enab Baladi, Babili believes that Tehran’s summit was not much of a success, as Russians and Iranians stress the necessity for Assad’s forces to have full control over Idlib governorate, which the Turkish position has opposed, as it seeks a political solution in Idlib but without concessions, to then shift to talking about the areas in the eastern part of the Euphrates.
According to the expert, Turkey might militarily support certain factions in case the game’s rules are changed.
In post-summit tweets, Erdoğan said: “Turkey would not stand by and would not participate in such a game, if the world is to close its eyes on the killing of dozens of thousands to support the Syrian government’s agenda.”
“If the world overlooks the killing of dozens of thousands of innocent people to enhance the regime’s interest, we would not stand by and would not participate in such a game,” he added.
A Choice Game
Concerning the principal obstacle that is hindering all possible progress at the level of Idlib, the “al-Nusra Front,” the Turkish intelligence services are negotiating with it as to dissolve itself and integrate with the rest of the military factions, to eliminate the “terrorism” pretext from the governorate, which both Russia and the Syrian regime are holding to.
According to what a military source of the “Free Army” has told Enab Baladi, Turkey is applying pressure on the “al-Nusra Front,” as to dissolve itself or to move it towards the desert similar to what the Syrian regime has previously done with the “Islamic State” troops.
In case “Tahrir al-Sham” refuses to move to the desert, Turkey will utilize another plan, according to the source, which includes conducting a small-scale operation by the Turkish army and the opposition forces, but in a rapid and limited manner as to eradicate “terrorism” completely.
In the past a few days Turkey has promised Russia of securing Khmeimim Air Base from any attacks on the part of the opposition factions, but the latter insisted on taking over the two areas of Jisr al-Shugur and al-Ghab Plain and positioning any presence of the factions at a distance of 60 kilometers.
The Turkish proposal for the Tehran summit speaks of a safe departure for the factions, classified as “terrorists,” to a buffer zone under the supervision of the opposition factions, stipulating that they surrender their weaponry to a military coalition supported by Ankara, pointing out to the “National Army.”
The foreign troops will be allowed to return to their countries if they want and the area’s illegal groups will be targeted if they are to resist the salvation and evacuation plans, and according to the proposal Idlib will be run by Turkey, which will also be training the “Free Army” factions.
The plan also includes the security of the Russian Khmeimim Air Base in the governorate of Lattakia and the area’s wealth of metals.
The military source pointed out that the Assad’s forces’ objective in Idlib is regaining control over the international highway and getting back authority over the governorate’s center, as well as disrupting the connection between Idlib’s and other governorates’ rural parts.
He explained that the regime is trying to progress through a limited operation from outside, which Russia has stressed in former statements, as it said: “We have to preserve security and safety from the outside and Turkey from the inside.”
All that has been mentioned above shows how Turkey is holding on to Idlib and how it restricted the solution to the governorate by being immediately related to the “National security, according to Erdoğan, away from its role in relation to the political solution in Syria.
The source believes that the Turkish presidents’ speaking of the national security essentially means the refugees that will enter Turkey if a military operation is to happen, in addition to the fear of “terrorists” sneaking into Turkey, which will impose both security-related and economic pressure on Ankara.
Russia Searches for a Breach
On the other sides and despite the cards that Turkey is holding in Idlib, Russia is attempting to make a breach in the governorate stressing that through repeated statements about the enticing movements that the factions are directing at the Khmeimim Air Base and the preparations for chemical attacks in several areas, such as Jisir al-Shugur, according to the Ministry of Defense’s latest announcements.
Following the summit, Putin in a statement said: “We have discussed the practical procedures as to impose stability at stages in the de-escalation area in Idlib, which especially includes the possibility for those who would like to start a dialogue to sign an agreement.”
He replayed as an answer to Erdoğan’s suggested truce, that it might be conducted in stages and with specific armed groups, a thing through which it might be able to enter to certain areas in the governorate such as al-Ghab Plain and Jisir al-Shugur, and thus secure its military bases at the coast.
Assad’s forces and allied militias are yet deploying military reinforcements to the surrounding of the governorate, which are basically focused at the “strategic” Jourin camp, which witnessed a shelling on the part of the Turkey-supported opposition factions last week.
On the other side, the opposition factions are fortifying their fronts, and they have already received orders from the Turkish army about the necessity to reinforce all the critical joints with the Syrian regime in preparation for nay battle, according to what a military source have formerly told Enab Baladi.
The UN Special Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, is decided to hold talks with representatives of Turkey, Russia and Iran next week in Geneva on the crisis in Idlib.
Idlib remains dependent on the Turkish strategy inside Syria, and its ability to confront the Russian-Iranian intransigence, whether by the options presented earlier or by resorting to US, which special representative to Syria James Jeffrey has under the latest developments visited Ankara and conducted talks with the Turkish Defense Minister, Hulusi Akar.