The first convoy of armored vehicles carrying Turkish troops crossed into Idlib, Syria, on Oct. 11, 2017. The move by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) came after Ankara declared that it was sending troops into Syria to enforce a de-escalation zone in the city, which was part of an agreement reached between Ankara, Moscow and Tehran during the sixth round of talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, in September 2017.
The TSK said that the Turkish troops would be operating in the Idlib de-escalation zone within the framework of the Astana agreement in order to observe the cease-fire, ensure the delivery of humanitarian aid and create safe conditions for civilians to return home.
In line with the Astana agreement, Turkey established 12 military observation posts in Idlib, the last one in May in the south of Jisr al-Shoghour, while Russia and Iran set up 10 and seven posts, respectively, throughout the entire Syrian regime-controlled region and Idlib contact lines.
However, the deal aimed at reducing violence in Syria did not cover only Idlib. A year ago, the plan was calling for a cessation of hostilities between rebel groups and the Bashar Assad regime's forces in four de-escalation zones in mainly opposition-held areas. Three of those four zones – the Rastan and Talbiseh enclave in northern Homs province, Eastern Ghouta in the northern Damascus countryside, and the south along the border with Jordan that includes parts Deraa and Quneitra – were militarily retaken by the regime.More than 1.5 million people were believed to live in these zones. Most of them had to leave their homes so as not to die under the regime's heavy assault campaigns. And now only Idlib has remained. But the regime has already deployed new troops to Idlib's west, south and east and is getting ready to attack the province where around 3.5 million Syrians live, including 1.5 million internally displaced people. Targeting the towns in the south and west in the last three weeks with artillery and violating the terms of Astana agreement once again, it looks like the Assad regime is getting all the help from the Russian Air Forces.
Last week, the leaders of Turkey, Russia, and Iran met in Tehran to discuss the Syrian issue. Idlib was the most important topic on their agenda. The whole summit was televised live by Tehran, without informing the Turkish and Russian attendants. Though this act brought some questions to minds, it helped us see that Turkish President Erdoğan asked Russia and Iran for a ceasefire in Idlib. Unfortunately, Russian President Putin and Iranian President Rouhani were reluctant to spare the lives of millions.
Russia has long seemed to be avoiding a major military offensive in Idlib, while Iran has already positioned itself for another fight in Idlib. A Turkish military convoy was attacked by Iran-backed Shia militias on Jan. 30 during the establishment of the fourth observation post in al-Eis. Today, it looks like Russia is coming closer to being on the same page with Iran on Idlib, which is a red line for Turkey.
Already hosting more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees since the beginning of the civil war, Turkey says that it cannot take any more people fleeing the Assad regime's bombardments. But it also does not want to see another humanitarian catastrophe across its borders. In addition to the risk involved with a new refugee influx, Turkey sees Idlib as a matter of national security and does not want to leave the region. That's why it urges Russia and Iran not to betray the Astana process and let Turkey clear the terrorist elements, like the former al-Qaida affiliate, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), from Idlib without bloodshed.
In fact, Turkey has already been getting some results with regards to eliminating al-Qaida affiliated groups inside Idlib for a year now. Avoiding internal clashes, which would risk the lives of civilians, Turkey has been pressuring mainstream opposition groups to join forces and challenge the HTS and other smaller terrorist groups.
This winter, Ahrar al-Sham and Nour al-Din al-Zinki came together and formed the Syrian Liberation Front (SLF), while more than 10 Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions merged under the National Liberation Front. By uniting all these groups, Turkey has pushed them to confront the HTS, which is already unpopular among Idlib's civilians. As a matter of fact, the Syrian Liberation Front and the National Liberation Front started to get results since February, repelling the HTS. They took control of more than 40 critical points, including highly populated towns in the province. The HTS withdrew mostly to the western parts of Idlib. It is losing power and influence in the region and is reportedly considering dissolving the group soon.
However, a regime attack in Idlib will not only derail Turkey's efforts to eliminate terrorist elements in the region but help the HTS regain power. Such an attack will stop the mainstream opposition groups from confronting the HTS; even worse it may push them to join forces to resist the regime together. Since the regime and its allies are pushing for a major attack, I wonder if it is because Turkey has clearly been getting positive results? Turkey's success in clearing the al-Qaeda affiliates will obviously invalidate the regime's narrative. Is that what Russia and Iran are afraid of? I can't help but think this is the case.