For about two months, it has seemed that an offensive by Bashar al Assad’s regime, Iran, and Russia into Idlib was imminent, with disastrous humanitarian and strategic consequences. On Monday, an agreement was reached between Turkey and Russia that put a halt to this prospect, at least for now.
There is good reason to think the pro-Assad forces are delaying, rather than cancelling, their plans to reconquer Idlib, but the extra time gives space to Turkey to alter the terms politically.
The Astana process—the political track over Syria set up in late 2016, involving Russia, Iran, and Turkey—created a series of “de-escalation zones” in May 2017. Covering northern Homs, the East Ghouta suburbs of Damascus, Deraa in the south, and Idlib, the ostensible purpose of these zones was to reduce violence.
In fact, as with all previous ceasefire agreements, the regime coalition used the calm on some fronts to concentrate resources on another—and systematically liquidated the de-escalation zones, one after the other, until by late July there was only Idlib left.
Almost immediately, the Assad regime indicated its desire to move into Idlib. And it was clear how the attack would be framed: in the language of the War on Terror. Idlib was, said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a “festering abscess” that had to be eliminated, and he hoped the West would “not obstruct an anti-terror operation”.
The most dominant military force in Idlib is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the successor to Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian branch. HTS has broken from Al Qaeda’s command structure and Al Qaeda’s loyalists have regrouped into a faction calling itself Tandheem Hurras al-Deen. Nonetheless, HTS remains “jihadist” in ideology and is registered as a terrorist group, including now by Turkey.
The “de-escalation agreement” had provisions calling for the removal of terrorists, and the pro-Assad coalition has used this pretext to politically prepare the ground for an assault on Idlib.
By late last year, Turkey had set up “observation posts”—military encampments—throughout Idlib and was engaged in a campaign to undermine HTS through “softer” actions like embarrassing leaked conversations of HTS leaders.
This has continued. The end-goal was to split HTS, isolating and neutralising the hardcore extremists, and drawing the rest into the mainstream opposition conglomerate, the National Liberation Front (NLF), which had been formed under Turkish auspices.
The pro-Assad forces insisted this was not quick enough. A regime that manipulated the Islamic State (Daesh) into doing its bidding for over a decade and has used terrorism against every one of its neighbours—just last week Turkish intelligence executed a raid to arrest the regime official responsible for the bombing in Reyhanli in 2013—was suddenly seized with worry about the presence of terrorists. Unless Turkey destroyed the terrorists in Idlib immediately, the regime coalition would have to come in and do it, the pro-Assad forces argued.
When the Astana set met earlier this month in Tehran, it concluded in a bizarre spectacle of Russian president Vladimir Putin, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan seemingly negotiating live on television.
It seemed clear that Erdogan had not convinced his two interlocutors than an Idlib offensive was a bad idea. “I don’t think the summit was ever supposed to be anything other than a stalling tactic that would distract Turkey and make it look bad,” one Western official added. “Putin has mastered that tactic for Syria.”
If Iran supplied the ground forces and Russia supplied the air power, there could be an offensive on Idlib, though it was not entirely clear that if Turkey decided to stand and fight she would be defeated.
There was no question that without Moscow’s airstrikes, no regime coalition offensive in Idlib would get far. Even with masses of Iranian—and now Russian—manpower supplied to the regime, it is in no state for offensive operations on its own.
Moreover Russia’s position in Syria is very weak militarily, as demonstrated with Israel’s airstrikes Monday night near Russia’s bases on the Syrian coast, ending in a humiliating fiasco when Assad’s air defences shot down a Russian jet.
Moscow is vulnerable politically, trying to balance relations with Turkey, Iran, and Israel. But it does not seem Ankara realised this.
The terms of the 17 September deal contains provisions for opening up trade routes between the regime and Turkey. It focuses on establishing a demilitarised zone ten miles deep in Idlib that is free of “radical terrorist groups”. While the deal says that “exact lines of the demilitarised zone will be determined through further consultations”, it is fairly clear that this zone will impinge only on rebel territory.
Turkey has managed, for now, to halt an offensive that could have impacted millions of people. But the matter is hardly settled and the terms favour the regime coalition. Politically, the focus is on the rebel groups and militarily the pro-Assad forces have taken a slice out of Turkey’s territory.
The immediate challenge for Turkey is the set of radical rebel groups. A group like Hurras al-Deen, relatively small and openly hostile, could be attacked militarily. HTS is a different beast: it has embedded itself locally, it is much larger, and it has opened communications channels with the Turks.
The other challenge is the “blowback”: any forward leaning action by Turkish policy against Hurras al-Deen, and the other smaller Al Qaeda-leaning jihadi groups could trigger terrorist attacks inside Turkey from these organisations’ networks, which are known to criss-cross Anatolia.
Assuming Turkey could clear the "jihadists" out of Idlib, a big “if”, it might rebound against her. The ambitions of the Assad-Iran forces to forcibly reconquer the whole country remain, despite the “diplomacy works” propaganda from Tehran, and without the freelancing radical groups in Idlib that becomes easier.
The demilitarised zone, especially the notion of removing heavy weapons from rebels, has about it aspects of the “reconciliation” agreements. These are in reality surrender instruments that have all ended in terror and murder for the opposition and civilians associated with the anti-regime cause. In short, this deal might end up softening Idlib up for a pro-Assad offensive or for a province-wide “reconciliation” agreement, which itself would be no guarantee against the wave of refugees laced with terrorists that Turkey fears.
Turkey has reinforced her position in Idlib and, despite some erratic rhetoric, it does at last seem the US is firmly committed to a long-term presence in Syria. If differences over the PKK can be composed, it would face Russia with a united NATO, and that’s only ever had one outcome.
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