Vicken Cheterian

Turkish Military in Idlib against Kurds or Jihadis?

The rapid collapse of “”Islamic State” (ISIS) positions in eastern Syria last week, as well as the fall of ISIS pocket of Hawija in Iraq, is redrawing the battle-lines of the Middle East. On 16 October, Iraqi forces advanced rapidly and took oil-rich Kirkuk. On October 13, Turkish military units were deployed in a risky operation inside Syria’s Idlib province, aiming at isolating Kurdish fighters in Afrin, and to control jihadi fighters in northern Syria. 

Syrian authorities in Damascus protested against the Turkish deployment demanding immediate withdrawal. Yet, the move is part of the May 2017 agreement of Russia-Turkey-Iran Astana to create “de-escalation zones” inside Syria, and part of Russian strategy to stop the armed rebellion against Bashar al-Asad. Similar agreements were reached in Daraa area in the south, Eastern Ghouta near Damascus, and Rastan north of Homs. De-escalation in Idlib means that Syrian rebellion has abandoned the choice of overthrowing the Asad administration by force of arms, unless they counter the Russia-Turkey-Iran agreement. 

The timing of the Turkish deployment comes as the “Islamic State” (ISIS) strongholds Raqqa and al-Mayadin, and is now encircled in parts of Der Ez-Zor. Consequently, both the Russian and American next step is to target al-Qaeda affiliated groups in their Idlib stronghold. The Turkish deployment in Idlib has clearly three objectives: one is to increase the pressure on Afrain, a Kurdish enclave situated between Turkish provinces of Hatay, Gaziantep and Kilis; and on the other hand to salvage what remains of Turkish influence over the Syrian rebel groups. Ankara needs to salvage its allies from a potential Russian-Syrian Army military campaign over Idlib. A last Turkish aim is to prevent a new wave of refugees in case of a major Russian campaign on Idlib, and instead start returning Syrian refugees to areas that could be considered as “safe”. 

The initial Turkish military deployment could give us some explanations on Turkish objectives: it started from the Turkish border town Reyhanli advancing eastwards along the frontlines with People’s Protection Units (YPG). Field reports inform that Turkish army advanced accompanied by HTS and al-Zanki fighters, to avoid clashes with Syrian rebel groups. In other words, for Turkish military YPG are considered as terrorists, while HTS is not. Another message sent from Ankara to Damascus was the release of a Syrian military pilot Col. Mohammad Soufan held in Turkey since March, after his MiG-21 was brought down by Syrian rebel fire. 

Will the next move of Ankara be overrunning Afrin? It will depend on two factors: international green light, and Kurdish defences. Only a week before the Turkish deployment, a YPG delegation including its leader Sipan Hemmo where they met Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu. Recent tensions between Moscow and Ankara appeared following Erdogan’s visit to Ukraine, and Turkey casting doubt about its earlier announces on purchasing Russian S-400 missiles. Ankara’s relation with Washington is at its historic lowest point. 

The next question is that of HTS. A military commander of Suqur al-Sham/Ahrar al-Sham, in written answers had the following to say: Turkey enjoys much popularity in Idlib province, although many think that the intervention is not for the protection of the civilians, but for Turkish national interests. What concerns HTS, “Turkey would like to avoid clashing with HTS out of ideological considerations, but I think they will eventually fail to coordinate with HTS making a clash inevitable.” 

A Syrian opposition figure, answering my questions from inside Turkey, said that Turkey has reached agreement with Russia to take parts of Idlib, as well as Aleppo countryside and Jabal al-Turkman, as well as Afrin, while evacuating areas of Idlib to the east of Aleppo-Homs railway line currently held by rebel groups to Russian forces. But Russian permission to let Turkish forces advance to Afrin will probably depend whether Ankara manages to deal with HTS first. “Otherwise” the Syrian opposition figure added “Russia has plan B, which is to advance to Idlib with the Syrian regime army and pro-Iranian militias.” The question is: how will Syrian rebel groups swallow such a pill?

There has been no official reaction from HTS, but its supporters on Telegram and Tweeter describe the Turkish deployment as an operation limited to be against YPG. The Syrian opposition activist added: “HTS policy seems to be to avoid confronting the Turkish army, yet not to let other Syrian groups to be deployed in Idlib under Turkish protection. They want the deployment to be coordinated with them.” 

Yet, Turkish intervention will create enormous contradictions within HTS, which earlier attacked other Syrian rebel groups, for their participation in the Astana talks, accusing them of “collaboration”. In July 2017, HTS attacked positions of Ahrar al-Sham, a former ally of HTS, and effectively took control of Idlib province. How long will Turkey be able to balance its collaboration with Russia and Iran based on Astana agreement on the one hand, and hard line Syrian rebels within HTS on the other, remains to be seen.

The last question is what will happen to the Syrian Free Army and other rebel groups, and their armed struggle to overthrow the Asad regime? The Ahrar al-Sham field commander said: “I cannot expect that the Free Army signs an agreement of surrender and defeat based on keeping Asad and his security and confessional regime.” The Turkish intervention in Idlib will try to put an end the remaining independence of FSA affiliated groups, bringing them under Turkish political ceiling. The attack of pro-Turkish Sultan Murad battalions on Levant Front (al-jabha al-shamiyya) is part of that struggle. 

The Idlib deployment is the second Turkish military intervention inside Syria after the “Euphrates Shield” Operation in northern Aleppo countryside. It is not clear whether Ankara will succeed in eliminating the YPG pocket in Afrin, and avoid a showdown with al-Qaeda affiliates. One thing is clear, Turkey has taken a step deeper into the  Syrian quick-sand.