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Erdogan’s high stakes game in Idlib

Oct 10,2017 - Last updated at Oct 10,2017

Turkey is about to sink deeper into the Syrian quagmire as it launches a risky campaign to take over the rebellious northwestern province of Idlib, a hotbed for radical jihadists and a momentary refuge for tens of thousands of hapless civilians, many of whom fled when Aleppo was finally and brutally subjugated by regime forces and their Russian and Iranian allies last year.

Earlier in the week, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that fighters belonging to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) will cross the borders into the embattled province and will be backed by the Turkish military.

The exact goals of the campaign, a sequel to the controversial Euphrates Shield, are vague at best.

Turkey, Russia and Iran agreed in Astana last month to designate Idlib as one of four Syrian de-escalation zones, another vague term that implies a mutually agreed-upon cessation of hostilities mainly between Syrian rebel groups and regime forces.

But Idlib is an uncharacteristic rebel-held province. 

Thousands of rebel fighters and their families had been evacuated to Idlib from various areas of Syria, especially Aleppo, Homs, Qalamoun, Zabadani and the Damascus countryside (Ghouta) during the past year.

Few months ago, infighting between various groups ended in the Tahrir Al Sham alliance, an umbrella for jihadist elements belonging to the former Al Nusra Front, taking control of the province.

Al Nusra cut ties with Al Qaeda last year and rebranded itself. Still, Russia and the US-led coalition consider it a terrorist group that has no place in a future political settlement.

One of the declared objectives of the Turkish campaign is to separate “moderate rebels” from “terrorist organisations”, according to Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

But that is easier said than done. Only a small part of Idlib is in the hands of so-called moderate groups. They are stuck between their former comrades from the Tahrir Al Sham alliance and the Syrian Kurdish fighters belonging to the SDF/YPG.

Regime forces are entrenched not far off, as well, making a three or four-way clash possible.

The agreement to allow Turkish forces to enter Idlib was reportedly taken when Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan met in Ankara at the end of last month.

In announcing the operation, the Turkish president said Russia will provide air cover to the advancing FSA fighters. But FSA sources denied this and Russia’s defence ministry had been reluctant to comment.

On Sunday, Reuters reported that the Turkish military shelled areas in Idlib after coming under attack from areas under Tahrir Al Sham control. But it also reported that a Turkish exploratory convoy had entered the province on Sunday, accompanied by Tahrir Al Sham vehicles, and headed towards Aleppo’s northwestern edge, close to where SDF/YPG forces were positioned.

Local sources told the agency that Ankara may have reached an understanding with the militant group in control of Idlib.

Ankara’s arrangement with Moscow and Tehran stipulates that Turkey will be responsible for keeping the peace inside the province while Russian and Iranian observers will be deployed on its parameters.

But how far Turkey, or its FSA proxy, is willing to go in confronting the well-armed radical jihadists remains unclear.

Erdogan’s motives in embarking on this adventure are dubious. He has been adamant about stopping Syria’s Kurds from expanding their territory along the borders with Turkey.

The Euphrates Shield, launched last year, stopped short of achieving its goals of overcoming the SDF/YPG; the operation was derailed by the US and the Russians. 

Erdogan has been wooing the Russians in response to America’s increased support for the Syrian Kurds who are now encircling the Daesh stronghold of Raqqa.

Relations between Ankara and Washington have been shaky as a result.

Now analysts believe Erdogan wants to take over Idlib to thwart ambitions by Syrian Kurds to create a link between northeastern Syria and the Mediterranean. But in order to do so, he must either overcome Tahrir Al Sham fighters or strike a deal with them. Both tasks seem untenable at the moment.

It is difficult to believe that Turkey’s mission in Idlib will be easy or straightforward.

For one, the humanitarian cost of military action will be high. Russian and Syrian jets have been accused of killing tens of civilians in Idlib, and targeting hospitals and residential areas in the past few weeks.

With their back against the wall, rebel fighters in Idlib know that they will be fighting for their lives, since there are no safe havens left.

Interestingly enough, a senior Syrian opposition figure, Mohammad Sabra, criticised the Turkish operation and the FSA’s participation, saying that Ankara’s incursion in Idlib has nothing to do with fighting terrorists.

Erdogan may have walked into a trap of his own making. Russia, Iran, the US and the regime will let him do the dirty job in Idlib and carry the blame for the hefty humanitarian consequences.

 

 

The writer is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.

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