Idlib Offensive: Why is Turkey Freaking Out?

11.09.2018 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

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It seems like yesterday that Turkey, a participant in both the Astana and Sochi peace processes, carried out its own operation in Idlib to shore up the internationally brokered ‘deescalation zone.’ This operation, apart from paving the way for creating a supposed deescalation zone,  also allowed Turkey to entrench its military in Syria, becoming a major regional player that would enjoy the ability to shape the Syrian end-game, and retain both a military presence and influence in Syria in any post-war scenario. While Russia and Iran agreed to Turkey’s presence in Syria in exchange for having Turkey’s support for a Russian-Iranian plan for Syria that didn’t involve Assad’s removal from power as a precondition, Turkey’s current opposition to a full-scale offensive by Syrian forces in Idlib signals that the understanding reached by the three nations might begin unraveling.

While Turkey claims that the operation in Idlib will result in a massive loss of human life, a fact that no one can deny, this reasoning alone does not explain Turkey’s rigid opposition to this step.

The actual underlying reason for Turkey’s change of heart is the fear of losing its own grip on Syria. A Syrian offensive, supported as it will be by Russian and Iranian forces, will mean a more international military presence in Syria, leaving Turkey in a precarious position vis-à-vis its ability to have the final say in matters, while enabling Ankara to keep a watchful eye on the Kurdish militia. Also, if a joint Syrian, Russian and Iranian offensive comes, it may also involve a potential withdrawal of Turkish troops from Idlib; otherwise there will be a real chance of Turkish troops being caught in the crossfire. This withdrawal as Turkey’s leadership seems to believe, may result in the elimination of Ankara from being a deciding factor as the conflict nears its conclusion, and prevent Turkey from influencing events on the ground.

A Syrian offensive in Idlib would also open up the possibility for further Syrian military infiltration into Turkey-controlled regions of Syria, such as Afrin and al-Bab.

On top of this fear is the fact that Kurdish militias are beginning to join with Syrian forces in what seems to be the last bloody battle in Idlib. Therefore, Kurdish ambitions in Syria’s north and northwest means that Turkey’s interests will be at serious risk, and, as Turkey believes, may result in their desire to establish their sovereign state. Let’s not forget that part of the reason for why Turkey had initiated its own military operation in Afrin was to prevent the US from creating a permanent Kurdish-led border force in northeast Syria.

Therefore, while a Turkish offensive in Afrin had led to a Kurdish exit, a Syrian offensive in Idlib has again made it possible for the Kurds to regain their lost territory. Turkey, of course, can’t see allowing this to happen; hence, its opposition to any Syrian offensive in Idlib, especially one involving Kurds as potential allies and possibly leading to the expulsion of Turkish forces from Syria.

Even if an exit doesn’t take place, the fact that a Syrian offensive will bring the Idlib Governorate under direct control by Damascus means Turkey would lose all grounds made in establishing its military presence and its build up of “rebel” forces there.

The Syrian government, for its part, has already shown enough flexibility to maintain Kurds as partners. “The solution to the problem now is for the Kurdish groups dealing with America to turn their backs on this and turn to the Syrian state,” said Syria’s Reconciliation Minister, Ali Haidar.

And, as of very recently, Kurdish militias have been in talks with the Syrian government regarding the future political set up of Syria and the nature of the state system. Elham Ahmad, co-chairman of the Syria Democratic Council, the Kurdish militias’ political wing, recently confirmed talks with the Syrian government and also highlighted what they were seeking to achieve. “What we care about is the reality of things, not the terminology. Whether the regime wants to name it decentralization, federalism, or a confederation, we do not care as long as it is the self-administrative power that we want and deserve”, she said.

A potential political agreement between the Syrian government and Kurds, therefore, means after all the efforts Ankara has made to corner the Kurds, the tide may once again be turned against it.

But can Turkey really change the equation by just opposing the operation? As it stands, despite certain disagreements voiced in Tehran over the Idlib offensive, air strikes have already begun. Also, Turkey is crippled by the fact that its relations with the US are at an all-time low, meaning that Turkey will have potentially no means of influencing the situation by pulling its former allies closer.

And, while its opposition to any offensive in Syria will only aggravate its relations with Syria, Russia and Iran, a negotiated agreement might still help it protect its interests in a much better way. On the contrary, mere opposition to Syria’s bid to re-establish its legitimate control over its own territory will only alienate Ankara from its new allies in the face of Syria, Russia and Iran, who are obviously planning a quick retake of all Syrian territories so that the Assad government can launch a transition to peace and stability in Syria, followed by major reconstruction.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.