Turkish troops enter Idlib as per deal brokered with Russia, Iran to reduce violence. Main goals are peacekeeping and stopping YPG's spread.
Syrian rebels are staging new military operations in Syria's Idlib province, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Saturday adding that the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) were “not yet” there.
"We are now taking new steps to ensure security in Idlib. Today, a very serious operation is ongoing in Idlib and this will continue," Erdogan said.
On Monday the Turkish Army announced that the army had started reconnaissance activities on October 8 in order to establish observation points in line with the planned de-escalation operation in Idlib.
Turkish forces crossed the Syrian border as part of the deal brokered with Russia and Iran to help reduce the violence in the region as a part of the four de-escalation zones agreed between the parties in the fourth round of Astana talks in May.
The Turkish army had been deploying units to reinforce the Turkish-Syrian border near Syria’s northwestern Idlib province for a number of weeks.
The current operation is being conducted in conjunction with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters.
Here is a look at the duties of the FSA forces in Idlib, and its importance for Turkey and other parties involved.
What is going on in Idlib?
Idlib had been a locus for fighting between Russia and Iran-backed regime forces and Turkey-backed opposition forces until July. In July, the Al Qaeda-affiliated former Al Nusra Front, Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) took control over a large part of the province.
As Turkey prepared to enter Idlib, it said it would not engage in direct combat with the HTS, but would support FSA troops, who had dominated the region before HTS. Turkey will establish monitoring stations in the region.
“Our goal is to prevent conflicts and to facilitate the political process,” Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Saturday.
Turkey-backed FSA troops will unite with other groups in Idlib against HTS, according to an opposition commander who spoke to TRT World on condition of anonymity.
This group will work to reduce popular support for HTS, and weaken the group without engaging in serious clashes, he said.
In addition to peacekeeping, Turkey wants to prevent the spread of the YPG along its border. YPG-controlled Afrin, where several Russian military officers also operate, borders Idlib to the north.
Turkish troops will be deployed in the west, while Russian and Iranian troops will remain in the east and south.
As per the Astana talks, the Turkish, Russian and Iranian troops are set to remain in Idlib for six months, a period that could be extended if necessary.
More Turkish troops could be deployed, depending on need, the Turkish official said.
Implementing the Astana process
The de-escalation deal brokered by Turkey, Russia and Iran in May was implemented in all zones except for Idlib, which has strategic importance for all three countries.
During the sixth round of talks in September, the three guarantor countries reached an agreement on Idlib, with the parties agreeing to deploy 500 troops each as observers.
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on September 21 that Russia would maintain security outside Idlib, in line with the agreement, and Turkey would maintain security inside the Idlib region.
“Our efforts in Idlib are going on, in cooperation with the Free Syria Army, without problems at the moment,” Erdogan said regarding Turkey’s operations near Idlib.
Idlib borders Turkey on its southeastern border, and is one of two opposition areas along its border, the other being the Euphrates Shield zone, where FSA and Turkish troops are located.
Idlib is bordered by YPG-controlled Afrin to the north. Turkish troops will also be deployed near the Afrin frontline on the Idlib side.
By having close access to Idlib, Turkey will be able to closely monitor YPG movement in Afrin.
One of Turkey’s biggest security concerns is the YPG linking the two areas under its control in northern Syria.
If the YPG is able to link them, it would mean that they would control lands along the border where Turkey also has a significant Kurdish population.
Turkey considers the YPG to be the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, which has waged a decades-long armed campaign against the Turkish state.
Turkey, the US and the EU, all consider the PKK to be a terrorist organisation.
Turkey has repeatedly stated that it would not allow for a YPG-controlled “so-called state” in northern Syria.
“We have to disrupt a terror corridor [they] want to establish from the east to the Mediterranean,” Erdogan said on Sunday when he was talking about the Idlib operation.
“If we allow this, we will experience another Kobane. We don’t want to experience a new Kobane, and we will not allow it to happen.”
Kobane is one of the cantons claimed by the US-backed YPG, which is seen as the a preliminary move towards their aim of autonomous administration in the region.
Turkey launched Operation Euphrates Shield last year to clear Daesh from its border and prevent the linking of the YPG-controlled Kobane and Afrin cantons.
Turkey also aims to create a safe haven between Syria and Turkey to prevent the war spilling into its territory.
“Our provinces at the border are constantly under threat. If nowadays we have [a few] mortars coming in, tomorrow bombs could come down here,” Erdogan said.
“If we don’t go to Syria, Syria comes to us.”
The de-escalation of violence in Idlib would also help prevent the potentially massive influx of refugees from Sunni-majority Idlib.
The region currently has a population of nearly four million, according to data from the Turkish Office for Public Diplomacy.
What’s in it for Russia and Iran?
Russian and Iranian troops will be deployed in eastern and southern Idlib near regime-controlled territories.
Idlib borders the coastal province of Latakia, in regime-controlled western Syria where a Russian-operated air base is located.
Iranian-backed militias are also active in regime-controlled areas near Idlib.
Idlib also lies near the corridor that links Latakia with Damascus and other regime-controlled territories in Syria. Thus, it is strategically important for both countries, which are the Syrian regime’s biggest international supporters.