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October 25, 2018
Internal and External Challenges to the Druzes of Lebanon
October 30, 2018

Turkey’s Battle Against Time and the Conflicting Interests in the Fate of Idlib

The 15th of October marked the deadline proposed by the Sochi agreement to remove all radical terrorist factions from the demilitarized zone, enclosing an envisaged de-escalation area in the province of Idlib. However, although Idlib’s radical factions have not been either disarmed or dismantled, nothing much has happened. Assessing the overall situation of Idlib, the different interests of the protagonists, in addition to the expected scenarios regarding Idlib’s fate are of crucial importance, the course of the Syrian war being intrinsically linked to the future of Idlib. Therefore, this article will address the following question: How critical is the role of Turkey in avoiding a bloodshed in Idlib and what consequential repercussions would arise in case of failure?

 

The importance of Idlib and the Strategic Management of De-Escalation Zones

Idlib is the lat remaining of the four de-escalation zones agreed on May 2017 by Turkey, Russia and Iran during the fourth round of the Astana talks which started earlier that year with the aim of reaching a solution to the raging Syrian conflict. It is the last strong hold of the rebellion standing between the Assad regime and its military victory over the opposition[1].

The trilateral agreement signed in May between the Syrian regime’s main supporters Russia and Iran, and Turkey the main rebel ally, called for the protection of civilians, the insurance of humanitarian aid, and the stopping of hostilities between the antagonists in four assigned de-escalation zones situated mainly in opposition-controlled territories, with the three powers acting as guarantors of the plan[2]. However, according to the agreement’s terms, both Russia and the Syrian regime will continue attacking considered “extremist” groups in their asserted fight against terrorism. This raised suspicions about the true intention of the Syrian regime considering the heterogeneity and complexity characterizing the rebels’ spectrum, complicating the definition, identification and targeting of terrorists such as IS fighters or Al-Qaeda affiliated groups.

Actually, the first weeks after the agreement was announced were marked by a decrease in violence across the four designated areas, advancing the illusion that the plan would finally establish a comprehensive cease-fire. Nonetheless, with time, the regime’s manipulation of the de-escalation agreement for strategic purposes became obvious, the Syrian regime expanding its territorial control at the expense of the opposition through violent measures and hundreds of civilian casualties. The agreement was instrumentalized by the Syrian government as an opportunity to select battles conveniently and mobilize military forces respectively. Analysts detected a pattern adopted by the Assad regime: when fighting temporarily ceased in the de-escalation zones, it was because the government and allied forces were focusing on other battles, like battling ISIS in eastern Syria[3]. While granting insufficient humanitarian aid and violating the agreement through military campaigns engendering mass surrenders, the regime succeeded in a matter of months to militarily conquer three of the four de-escalation zones with practically no international obstruction, except for the punitive air operation after the regime’s chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta[4].

Idlib’s turn has arrived. More than 200 civilians were victim of Russian supported airstrikes on Idlib while Syrian forces and allied militias have seized strategic villages and air bases from the rebels. The regime’s expansion and violation have encountered minimal sanction or objection from the protagonists involved in the Syrian crisis, especially from Washington. Moreover, Idlib became the primary dumping ground or sanctuary for anti-regime militants, ranging from moderate fighters to Al-Qaeda affiliates, as the first three de-escalation zones, namely Homs, Deraa and Quneitra, and Eastern Ghouta, were seized by the Syrian government and its allies. Therefore, fears revolve around a decisive devastating war opposing a regime eager to eradicate all opponents and regain control over its territory and hardline anti-regime fighters willing to fight till death[5].

Furthermore, a full-scale war in Idlib would also result in a serious humanitarian crisis considering that the highly dense Syrian province holds approximatively 3 million people, with at least 1.2 million of internally displaced, crammed in a region constituting 3 to 4 percent of Syria[6]. A conjoint aerial and ground military campaign to eliminate Jihadi as for Al-Qaeda rebel groups would inevitably entail mass civil displacement and huge scale deaths. Marwan Kabalan, the director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies said commenting on the high density: “If they shoot a bullet, it would probably kill two people.”[7]

The province’s fate hinges upon an agreement reached on the 17th of September by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the city of Sochi located in the Black Sea. The agreement which intends to avert a Syrian regime assault on Idlib and establish a 15 to 20 km demilitarized buffer zone between the regime and the opposition in Idlib, envisages to remove all heavy machinery from rebellious factions by the 10th of October 2018 and clear the area from all radical terrorist groups without recurring to military interventions by the 15th of the same month[8]. A looming war would aggravate even further the situation of Idlib’s population causing hundreds of thousands of displaced cases and massive casualties when neighboring country Turkey hasn’t yet accepted to reopen its borders for additional Syrian refugees.

Deliberation over Idlib’s Future: The Protagonists and Their Interests

While the Sochi agreement might momentarily forestall an expected battle in Idlib, the prospects of it preventing any military confrontations are slender due to the conflicting interests of involved protagonists as for its virtually improbable time-bound requirements. Thus, it’s worth assessing the envisaged potential scenarios as well as the respective interests and expectations of major actors involved in Idlib’s fate, especially that of Turkey and Russia, the main assigned guarantors of the Sochi agreement who are the only ones capable, with extensive negotiation, effort and cooperation, of preventing one of the worst humanitarian crises in the history of the Syrian war.

There are five significant players that are most likely to influence the course of events in Idlib, namely Turkey, Russia, the Syrian government, Iran, and the western powers led by the United States.

The seemingly impossible task of avoiding a Syrian government military assault on Idlib rests in the hands of Turkey, anxious to prevent a full-scale offensive on the province and to keep the region under control. Already bearing the economic as well as humanitarian costs of more than 3 million Syrian refugees, Turkey fears that further instability would prompt additional influx of refugees across its border, threatening the country’s security and weakened economy[9]. Tukey is battling against time, facing the perilous mission of dissuading Russia (the Syrian government’s position being established) from supporting with aerial strikes a Syrian regime offensive, by disarming its allied rebel groups in the province while dissolving radical organizations targeted by the concerned actors in their proclaimed war against terrorism[10].

Turkey, that intervened militarily in Northern Syria in 2016 to neutralize the Kurdish threat posed by the YPG, has heavily invested in supporting anti-government groups in Syria, and is focusing on differentiating its moderate allied rebels from those affiliated to Al-Qaeda in the province of Irbil. However, the rebel’s scenery in Idlib presents complex predicaments complicating Turkey’s tasks. Idlib is mainly controlled by two opposed rebel groups: Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former Al-Qaeda affiliate considered as a terrorist group by the concerned players and who controls almost 60% of the province’s territories[11], and al-Jabha al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir (NFL: The National Liberation Front), a Turkey-backed coalition of more moderate opposition groups. The landscape is complicated by the presence of smaller and more extreme Islamist factions some largely composed of foreign fighters, like the al-Hizb al-Turkestani made up of Uighur fighters, who have been initiating damaging assaults on Russian military bases provoking Russia to back the Syrian regime’s looming offensive over Idlib. Turkey has been employing the divide and control strategy with the aim of reshaping HTS, alienating the hardline fundamentalists and embracing the pragmatic members willing to cooperate into the lines of the NLF, with the objective of reforming HTS so that it falls under its control leaving no excuse for Russia and the Assad regime to attack the province. Turkey has also been pursuing moderate opposition forces to unite their efforts under the wings of the NLF in order to confront HTS’ violent tendencies with a more cohesive counter-power, considering that HTS has become increasingly unpopular in northwest Syria because of the violence in which it achieved military dominance in the province of Idlib (referred to as “Hitsh” in resemblance to the “Da’esh” nomination)[12].

Despite HTS’ continuous refusal to dissolve itself, Turkey has been steadily expanding its domination over the group’s factions with HTS’ leader Al-Golani criticized by hardline jihadists for his lenient stand and shady relationship with Turkey. Therefore, radical jihadi critics of Al-Golani have converged in a small pro-Al-Qaeda faction called Hurras al-Deen. Under those circumstances and benefiting from a Russia accord, Turkey could pursue its management of the Jihadi rebels’ file in Idlib pressuring HTS members to split between the Turkey supported front and the smaller radical Hurrass al-Deen faction[13].

Turkey positioned along the Idlib province 12 observation points which are increasingly resembling fortified operating bases adequately equipped in case of tensed hostilities. However, two observations are worth mentioning: While Turkey’s sponsored rebel groups might outnumber the radical Al-Qaeda and jihadi fighters, the former front is mostly constituted of local, makeshift and loose organizations that lack the level of training and military strategies possessed by the latter, raising the question of Turkey’s capabilities to take on hardline terrorists by itself[14]; Interestingly, if a Syrian government offensive was to take place, the totality of Idlib’s rebel fighters regardless of internal divides and diverging positions would combine their efforts in repelling back the Syrian attack as they share the mutual hatred towards the Assad regime and the obligation to preserve the last opposition stronghold.

Alongside Turkey, Russia plays a crucial role in averting a devastating battle in Idlib. Despite not having a direct strategic gain in Idlib, Moscow is capable of influencing the course of events in Idlib by aligning its convenient choice to either siding with Turkey and depriving the Syrian regime from its aerial support or deciding to assist the Syrian government’s military offensive on Idlib if it was not convinced by Turkey’s power to dissolve radical factions and demilitarize rebel groups.

Russia is tormented by two paradoxical choices regarding Idlib: On the one side, Moscow shares Damascus and Tehran’s (ultimate objective) ambition of recapturing Idlib and eliminating hardline jihadists and terrorist organizations. Fighting Chechen Islamists or Muslim extremists from the Balkans have constituted a major part of Russia’s national security discourse, which could entail a Syrian assault benefiting from Russian air support if no alternatives of eradicating the radical threat look promising. On the other hand, Russia’s interest resides in avoiding a full-scale offensive, instead opting for a more strategic outcome similar to that of Busra al-Sham in July 2018 when rebel factions surrendered to the Syrian army renouncing to their weapons[15]. Considering Idlib’s mountainous terrain, the large number of armed rebel groups and highly trained jihadists, the massive presence of civilians, and the dangers to Russian equipment and personnel, investing in a full-scale aerial operation could appear to be considerably costly for Russia who would prefer a more political solution to the conflict. Besides its military intervention in Syria, Russia also focuses on guaranteeing a long-term political presence inserted in a post-war rehabilitated Syria. Therefore, in an attempt to appease the international community and gain additional leverage in subsequent political negotiations or para-Syria issues such as the Ukraine crisis, Russia has been conducting agreements and negotiations with Turkey and neighboring countries including its initiative for the return of Syrian refugees, and displaying its dedicated contribution to restoring Syria’s political process of reconstruction and normalization[16]. If an offensive is to happen in Idlib, Russia would risk endangering its rapprochement with Turkey, its initiatives portraying the impression of growing stability in Syria, and its level of legitimacy in regards to the international scene. Nonetheless, suspicions and uncertainty mark Moscow’s capability to deter The Syrian government and Iranian militias from launching a full-scale military operation on Idlib, highlighting the need to cooperate with Turkey on the dissolution of HTS and radical foreign fighters.

Iran has no direct interest in the fate of Idlib, especially after successfully completing the evacuation of Syrian Shi’ite civilians from the rebel-controlled villages of Kefraya and Foua in the northwest of the country in July 2018[17]. Although Tehran’s ultimate goal is to permanently entrench its control and presence in Syria as part of its broader regional policy, assisting the Assad regime in eradicating the last major stronghold of the Syrian opposition could actually undermine its long-term strategy. Exerting its regional influence through sponsored local militia proxies, Iran is able to conduct its hegemonic policies in the region as long as instability, military confrontations, and terrorist organizations are still operational in destabilized countries, serving as both a pretext and a facilitator for Tehran to pursue its ambitions. A devastating regime offensive and the eradication of the opposition’s physical presence could alter the current parameters and provoke a western retribution which would address and challenge Tehran’s territorial military influence, having no more excuses to justify either the continuation of hostilities or the legitimacy of the Assad regime.

The Syrian government’s sole interest is to regain absolute control over its territory, reasserting its sovereignty, and eliminating all enemies through military means in order to downsize the Syrian opposition’s maneuver of bargaining in future calls for negotiations. However, given the Syrian regime’s significant drain of cavalry, accumulated impoverishment, prolonged and devastating war in addition to the West’s punitive warning on the usage of chemical weapons, doubts remain whether it could actually sustain and afford a complex ground military offensive in case Russia deprived the regime from a decisive aerial support and Iran withheld the ground support of its backed militias; hence, deciding not to give the green light for the operation.

The United States appears to be disinterested in the prospects of a major military offensive in Idlib, leaving the future of the province to be decided upon between Turkey and Russia. The Trump administration has clearly stated that it does not stand against a limited military offensive on Idlib that targets HTS members. However, the US and its Allies have threatened punitive military action if the Assad regime was to attack Idlib recklessly killing civilians and recurring to chemical weapons, an illicit military tactic used when conventional arms aren’t enough to achieve battlefield progress. Trump’s disengagement policy specified that Washington’s main concern was more focused on the eradication of IS and other terrorist organizations that constitute a threat to the country’s national security and preventing Iran from taking advantage and expanding its influence in the region, than on the role Assad will have in post-war Syria[18].

In order to avoid threatening their security because of the mass influxes of Syrian refugees through Turkey, and challenging European values of protecting human as for civilian rights, it seems inevitable that European countries amplify their firm stand against a full-scale military assault in Idlib. Avoiding a humanitarian disaster could benefit from Europe’s support to Turkey by pressuring the Syrian government and Russia to avoid the usage of malicious military means on the expense of the Syrian population as it will be followed by a political cost, denying Russia the realization of a post-war political accord in Syria on its own terms and menacing the Assad regime with the reconstruction money needed to rebuilt the country[19].

Potential Scenarios

Having discerned the protagonists’ interests in Idlib, focus will be shifted on the assessment of the four different scenarios which are likely to take place in Idlib. Whatever scenario unfolds in the Syrian province appears to be unfortunately on the expense of the civil population trapped in the region.

The first scenario involves a full-fledged military offensive on Idlib. Turkey, who declared Idlib as a red line, stands strongly against this probability for the reasons elaborated above in addition to its fear that the fall of Idlib would set a risky precedent instigating a path for the Assad regime to recapture further Turkey controlled areas in northern Syria, especially considering the YPG’s willingness to assist the regime in its military campaigns[20]. A full-scale military offensive could result in Turkey withdrawing from the Astana process and granting its extensive support to the spectrum of armed rebels in norther Syria.

The second scenario envisages a protracted limited regime offensive on Idlib that will most likely be divided into two strategic rounds. Although the Assad regime’s ultimate objective would be to regain the entire Idlib province, the complexity of the rebel scene present in Idlib might force the regime to target the weakest positions first in limited suitable military campaigns[21]. Actually, HTS controls militarily northern Idlib, while the southern part of the province is dominated by the NLF. This geographical positioning leaves the Turkey-backed rebels isolated, cornered between the dual threat posed by the radical fighters and the Syrian forces. Therefore, the Syrian government could decide to engaged in a limited offensive in the south of Idlib, targeting Turkish-supported rebel groups, dividing the rebel scene by attacking the weakest faction first before negotiating with the other factions respectively. Targeting moderate opposition groups has constituted a major part of the Syrian regime’s counterinsurgency strategy, reducing the presence of moderate factions which could be considered as valid political alternatives to the regime at negotiation conferences and avoiding to eradicate radical terrorist organizations in the country[22]. The second round of protracted military offensives would encounter less objection, specifically targeting radical remaining groups and consecutively neutralizing selected radical groups depending on their level of integration and military capabilities. Turkey will definitely stand against such strategy that would undermine its credibility in front of supported rebel groups and entail similar outcomes to those mentioned in the first scenario.

The third scenario revolves around Turkey’s ability to successfully control radical organizations and demilitarize all opposing factions which could evolve in internal frictions between rebel groups supplanted by a reconciliation deal with the Syrian regime. While this scenario might appear as the most passable, it nonetheless entails the same challenging difficulties as the other possibilities. Armed confrontations in Idlib regardless of their context would certainly result in assessing the handling of the terrorists and the armed groups. Idlib being the remaining strong hold of the opposition, questions remain whether the Syrian regime will actually re-integrate the rebels into its society or army.

The fourth scenario, in opposition to the others and in conformity with the current development of events, implies that no military offensive of any sort will take place, Russia and Turkey respectively buying time, preserving the status quo, and insinuating a durable political solution to the prolonged Syrian war as an alternative to a looming military assault. Russia bypassing the Sochi agreement’s deadline can be perceived as a pre-requisite to convince President Assad under Russian pressure that the negotiation of a new Constitution and a political transition is to be accepted if the country is to be re-united and emptied from foreign armies. Although this scenario would be most suitable for Russia who wants to preserve its interest in a reunited Syria, Turkey that aims for the achievement of a political solution which would restrain the Syrian Kurds, Western powers who want to pressure Assad into negotiations and a political transition, as for the Syrian opposition who will be able to preserve a moderate final gain; Nonetheless, it would not be suitable for The Syrian regime that aims to reassert its control on the totality of its territories and Iran that benefits from the predominant chaos and from prolonging the reign of allied President Assad. Even though this last scenario seems to be prevailing, it doesn’t eradicate the prospects of a military offensive taking place, especially if the concerned antagonists fail to negotiate a long-term political solution to the Syrian conflict.

In conclusion, Turkey and Russia conjointly hold the future of Idlib in their hands. The fate of the Syrian province depends on Turkey’s capabilities to simultaneously strike a deal with Russia to delay a Syrian regime offensive and an agreement with the armed groups to disband jihadist organizations and disarm opposition groups. Whether Turkey will succeed in adequately managing Idlib’s armed groups is still debatable, especially under the imposed challenging deadline.  So what consequential repercussions would arise in case of turkey’s failure?

[1] Mariya Petkova and Farah Najjar, Everything you need to know about the looming battle for Idlib, Aljazeera, 8 Sept 2018, Available at: https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2018/09/looming-battle-idlib-180908142026400.html

[2] Al Jazeera, Syria’s de-escalation zones explained, 4 Jul 2017, Available at:

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/05/syria-de-escalation-zones-explained-170506050208636.html

[3] Hashem Osseiran, How de-escalation zones in Syria became a war management strategy, News Deeply, 6 Feb f2018, Available at: https://www.newsdeeply.com/syria/articles/2018/02/06/how-de-escalation-zones-in-syria-became-a-war-management-strategy

[4] OP.CIT. Charles Lister, The urgency of Idlib: the impending regime offensive and the delicate balance in Syria’s northwest, 3 Aug 2018

[5] The Economist, No one can stop the coming bloodbath in Idlib, 6th Sept 2018, Available at: https://www.economist.com/leaders/2018/09/06/no-one-can-stop-the-coming-bloodbath-in-idlib

[6] Charles Lister, The urgency of Idlib: the impending regime offensive and the delicate balance in Syria’s northwest, 3 Aug 2018, Available at: https://warontherocks.com/2018/08/the-urgency-of-idlib-the-impending-regime-offensive-and-the-delicate-balance-in-syrias-northwest/

[7] OP.CIT. Mariya Petkova and Farah Najjar, Everything you need to know about the looming battle for Idlib, Aljazeera, 8 Sept 2018

[8] Omer M. Karasapan, The Idlib agreement and other pieces of the Syrian puzzle, Brookings, 17 Sept 2018, Available at: https://www.brookings.edu/blog/future-development/2018/09/17/the-idlib-agreement-and-other-pieces-of-the-syrian-puzzle/

[9] Muhittin Ataman, The clash of interests in Idlib, Daily Sabah, 12 Sept 2018, Available at: https://www.dailysabah.com/columns/ataman-muhittin/2018/09/12/the-clash-of-interests-in-idlib

[10] Erin Cunningham, Turkey faces perilous mission in Northern Syria and possible disaster if it fails, The Washington Post, 22 Sept 2018, Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/turkey-faces-perilous-mission-in-northern-syria–and-possible-disaster-if-it-fails/2018/09/22/d2bf3c32-bc49-11e8-8243-f3ae9c99658a_story.html?utm_term=.aa6b4eda7b69

[11] Agence France Presse, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham: Syria regime’s toughest foe in Idlib, Military.com, 1 Sept 2018, Available at: https://www.military.com/daily-news/2018/09/01/hayat-tahrir-al-sham-syria-regimes-toughest-foe-idlib.html

[12] OP.CIT. Charles Lister, The urgency of Idlib: the impending regime offensive and the delicate balance in Syria’s northwest, 3 Aug 2018

[13] Aron Lund, Syrian war: Understanding Idlib’s rebel factions, IRIN, 3 Sept 2018, Available at: https://www.irinnews.org/analysis/2018/09/03/syrian-war-understanding-idlib-s-rebel-factions

[14] Nicholas Heras, Turkey’s deal with Russia still leaves the US with a dilemma on its Syrian strategy, The National, 18 Sept 2018, Available at: https://www.thenational.ae/opinion/comment/turkey-s-deal-with-russia-still-leaves-the-us-with-a-dilemma-on-its-syrian-strategy-1.771449

[15] Hadeel al-Saidawi, what do you predict will happen in the coming weeks in Syria’s Idlib governorate? , Carnegie, 9 Aug 2018, Available at: http://carnegie-mec.org/diwan/76990

[16] Sam Heller, Russia can stop a slaughter in Idlib, The Atlantic, 7 Sept 2018, Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/09/idlib-syria-russia-turkey/569590/

[17] Reuters, Evacuation of two pro-Assad Syrian villages complete, 18 July 2018, Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-evacuation/evacuation-of-two-pro-assad-syrian-villages-complete-idUSKBN1K80NL

[18] Martin Indyk, A Trump doctrine for the Middle East, The Atlantic, 14 Apr 2018, Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2018/04/trump-syria-middle-east/558053/

[19] OP.CIT. The Economist, No one can stop the coming bloodbath in Idlib, 6th Sept 2018

[20] OP.CIT. Charles Lister, The urgency of Idlib: the impending regime offensive and the delicate balance in Syria’s northwest, 3 Aug 2018

[21] Fabrice Balanche, Round one of Idlib Campaign may target Turkish-Backed rebels, The Washington Institute, 11 Sept 2018, Available at: https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/round-one-of-idlib-campaign-may-target-turkish-backed-rebels

[22] Ibid. Fabrice Balanche, Round one of Idlib Campaign may target Turkish-Backed rebels, The Washington Institute, 11 Sept 2018

Marc-Antoine Rouhana
Marc-Antoine Rouhana
Marc-Antoine Rouhana holds a bachelor degree in International Relations from the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik. He is currently enrolled in a specialization Master’s Program in Middle Eastern Studies at the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Milano-Italy. He is writing a thesis on the characteristics, role, as well as local/regional influence of challenging artistic non-State actors (mainly MENA region Rappers) on the ignition and evolution of the Arab Uprisings. His professional experiences involve working as an intern/volunteer with NGOs and Private companies on a ray of responsibilities ranging from project proposal to project implementation. Furthermore, his versatile multifaceted personal background caused him not to be only interested in politics per se, but on the correlative influence which intrinsically apolitical fields happened to have on politics (namely, arts, psychology, body language, etc.) Marc-Antoine is currently conducting an internship at the Middle East Institute for Research and Strategic Studies (MEIRSS).