Idlib Knot: Positions of the Parties and Possible Scenarios
Idlib has become a focal point for the armed, political and civilian aspects of the opposition side in the lengthy Syrian crisis. Therefore, the answer to the Idlib knot has a decisive character for the solution of the Syrian crisis as well. The fate of Idlib will also determine the outcome for the political solution in Syria, the situation of the armed opposition, the future of the displaced Syrians and the course of developments for the east of Euphrates. For the reason that Idlib is situated along the Turkish border, Turkey has been directly affected by the developments there and has had the opportunity to exert a degree of influence over the zone. Idlib was declared as one of the de-escalation zones in the context of the Astana process carried out under the guarantee of Turkey, Russia and Iran.
Resistance against military solution
The Syrian regime forces backed by Russia and Iran have sought to capture Idlib through the same methods that they have utilized in the other de-escalation zones. Yet, the sui generis circumstances in Idlib have prevented the repetition of the scenario that worked in the other areas. These circumstances are the presence of 3.5 million civilians and thousands of armed fighters as well as Turkey’s resistance against a military solution in Idlib. Accordingly, Turkey and Russia signed the Sochi Agreement in 2018 in order to find a permanent solution to the Idlib issue. This agreement enabled Turkey, Russia and Iran to form twelve military observation posts around Idlib and to declare a cease-fire between the sides.
The Sochi Agreement prevented an easy takeover of Idlib by the Syrian regime, yet Russian air support caused civilians to flee from settlements, which then fell under the sway of the Syrian regime, while at the same time some Turkish observation posts remained within the regime control zones. The Syrian regime’s operations focused on the settlements along the M-5 highway, which links Damascus and Aleppo. The Syrian regime captured Khan Shaykhun in August 2019 and took Maarat al Nouman in late January 2020, which is of critical importance. Ankara, up to that moment, had preferred diplomatic means against the breaches of ceasefire, yet since then has declared its readiness for military response.
Turkey views a possible military takeover of Idlib by Damascus as a vital risk. The first reason is that such a takeover will trigger mass migration. More important than that, the loss of Idlib would weaken Turkey’s hand both on the ground and on the table with regard to the Syrian crisis. It would also weaken Turkey in its fight against YPG/PKK and its efforts for political solution in Syria. Moreover, for Turkey, the loss of Idlib would be a blow to its military deterrence and consequently its efforts in Libya and the eastern Mediterranean would be harmed.
Turkey has accordingly adopted a new approach to Idlib after the capture of Maarat al Nouman by the Syrian regime. Until then, Ankara had opted for diplomatic efforts through Russia in order to prevent the Syrian regime’s operations. Yet, these efforts resulted in short-lived ceasefires to fighting and temporary solutions. As the Syrian regime’s intentions toward the M-4 highway and Saraqib became clearer after the capture of Maarat al Nouman, Turkey started to prioritize military response options. The Turkish Armed Forces (TAF) has therefore intensified its military deployment and reinforcement in Idlib. Turkey has set the objectives of its military deployment as the withdrawal of the Syrian regime forces to the line agreed in the Sochi Agreement. Turkey has also sent a message to the radical groups in Idlib as well as the regime and Russia by vowing to “use force against those who do not conform to the cease-fire including the radicals”. Demonstrating its military deterrence on the ground, Turkey has continued diplomatic negotiations with Russia as well. Yet, the negotiations in Ankara and Moscow did not produce any outcome.
These developments and statements indicate that Turkey aims to set up a genuine safe zone in Idlib within the agreed lines in the Sochi Agreement, under the protection and control of the TAF, in which the radicals will be liquidated. In this context, Turkey’s military engagement in Idlib can be interpreted as both a way of preventing external threats and a step toward shaping the interior. Nevertheless, one should not ignore the fact that Turkey’s military initiatives carry serious risks. The Idlib operation is different from Turkey’s former military operations in several aspects. First, the Idlib issue has the potential to turn into an interstate confrontation while Turkey’s former operations were conducted against two terrorist organization (YPG/PKK and DAESH). Second, Turkey had conducted the needed coordination against the external actors before the former operations and had assured the air superiority that is crucial for the military success. In Idlib, thanks to the Russian air support the Syrian regime is likely to have the air superiority for any potential confrontation with Turkey. As the statements of President Erdoğan indicate, TAF is taking precautions to interdict the Syrian regime’s air activity in Idlib, yet these precautions lack deterrence in the absence of long-range air defense systems.
The Turkish army has more advantages in the ground compared to the Syrian regime’s air superiority. The regime forces consist of mostly irregular militia other than exceptions. These militia forces have managed to gain ground thanks to Russia’s air support. In addition, they have not yet been tested against regular forces. That is because the Syrian opposition have not adopted a regular force model despite Turkey’s efforts. Therefore, the regime forces will meet a regular army in the field for the first time.
Russia’s coercion and diplomacy
The general impression in Turkey is that Russia will not forsake its strategic cooperation with Turkey for the Idlib issue, which is not of strategic importance for itself. According to that opinion, the Turkish-Russian cooperation in defense industry, energy, trade and security will prevent a direct confrontation in Idlib. That is because a potential clash in Idlib will create an impact that will end cooperation in other areas. Therefore, Russia would pay attention to Turkey’s vital interests in Idlib and would consent to a formula that prevents mass migration of civilians. Nevertheless, the Turkish-Russian diplomatic talks failed to reach a solution to the Idlib issue. In the words of İbrahim Kalın, Spokesperson of the Presidency, “Turkey did not accept papers and maps that were presented.” This statement means that Russia has sought to update the cease-fire lines agreed in Sochi in accordance with the situation on the ground and has demanded that the Turkish observation posts to be withdrawn to the new line. However, Turkey insisted that the situation on the ground has been achieved in the breach of the current agreements, the regime should withdraw to the Sochi lines and that the observation posts will not be replaced.
This situation shows that despite the expectations, Russia does not care for the issues that Turkey is sensitive about. Several explanations are possible for this. First, Russia has concluded that that a gradual approach for a military takeover of Idlib does not cause a substantial cost for itself. It is likely that Russia has regarded the military balance in Idlib as favorable, considered that the Idlib issue would not affect the other areas of cooperation and most importantly evaluated that NATO and the U.S. will not support Turkey. In other words, it is assertive about a military solution against which it sees no hindrance. Secondly, while Russia may favor an updated agreement, it views Turkey’s demands to return to Sochi unacceptable. According to this alternative, Russia will prevent the Syrian opposition to alter the current borders in their favor, and yet will remain neutral if the Syrian regime and the Iranian-backed militia clashes with the Turkish army for expanding their control.
A window of opportunity for the United States
The United States’ priorities in Syria involve acquiring a political status for the areas that it controls in the east of Euphrates through YPG/PKK; weakening Iran’s power in Syria and preventing a Russian and regime victory in Syria. In this perspective, the U.S. considers the current Turkish-Russian/Syria tensions as an advantage. Also, it views the current Idlib issue as a problem that will create a major rift in the Turkish-Russian relations. For this reason, the U.S. issues statements aimed at making Turkey feel stronger and safer. Yet, no one expects the U.S. to provide concrete military support other than intelligence sharing and some air defense weapons. The U.S. is expected to wait as the Turkey-Russia rift deepens until it feels that Turkey is in dire need of the U.S. support. At this point, it may provide Patriot long range air defense systems to be deployed along the border. That is because, it might provide a balance against the regime’s air superiority in Idlib. Nevertheless, the U.S. support would not be without any payback and it is likely that it will ask for the resolution of the S-400 issue.
As of mid-February, one can argue that the Turkish army has mostly concluded its military deployment and the operation for Idlib has started. At the first phase, Turkey and Russia/Regime will test each other. The parties will seek to understand the other’s commitment and military capabilities. At that point, the most important challenge for Turkey is the position of Russian air forces against TAF’s moves. The second challenge is the level of efficiency of TAF’s measures against Syria’s air superiority. In addition, the sides will see who is resolved to carry on the fight despite losses. Furthermore, new actors might get involved as time passes. All these factors will result in a new balance in Idlib. It is possible that Turkey and Russia will ink a new deal in accordance with the new picture on the ground. Yet against all odds, Turkey will manage to create a genuine safe zone that it establishes control. The extent of the safe zone will be determined by the military performance of the sides.
This scenario might be possible if the clashes take place between Turkey/Syrian opposition and the Syria regime/Iranian-backed militias. That is because in the contrary scenario, as Turkish-Russian tensions mount the sides might target each other. Under such circumstances, the tensions will not be contained in Idlib and other areas in Syria might be destabilized. The decreasing trend in the violence that is achieved in recent years might be reversed. Possible destabilization areas might be Tal Rifat, Afrin, Euphrates Shield, Manbij and eastern Euphrates. More importantly, the Turkish-Russian relations will be negatively affected. The new situation will lead to the emergence of a similar process experienced in previous jet crisis and the opportunities for the Turkish-Russian relations to carry on cooperation and competition at the same time will diminish.