All the attention in Syria has turned toward Idlib, the new potential danger area, which has recently become the stronghold of the Syrian opposition. The estimated population of the province is 2 million.Idlib is crucial for Turkey because of its location on the Turkish-Syrian border. As far as other provinces on the border go, they are all held by the Democratic Union Party's (PYD) People's Protection Units (YPG) forces with the exception of Jarablus and al-Bab. It is one of the 14 guards of Syria and the majority of its population consists primarily of Sunni Arabs. The region has been held by the opposition since 2015, but the matter is not limited to this alone, which is the critical issue.
Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an umbrella organization, which is the Syrian wing of al-Qaida, is quite strong in the province and often experiences tension with the opposition. But it is a plausible argument that the U.S. is currently clearing the way for HTS and wants to leave Idlib to al-Qaida in order to carry out an operation as it sees fit later. In fact, while Turkey keeps the possibility of intervening in Idlib secret, the U.S. often voices that the HTS is concentrating there and, moreover, accuses Turkey of allowing these organizations to pass into Syria from Turkey. In other words, with a move, it paves the way for a PYD intervention in Idlib as well. Of course, Ankara is very troubled with this.
And what are Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime's attitude on Idlib?
The Iraq border is a much more primary concentration point for Bashar al-Assad and Iran at present. And Russia is waiting about the Idlib issue at this stage. They all have different problems as their top priorities and the HTS is increasingly becoming an absolute power in Idlib, which points to a major problem. This is because if Idlib, as a sort of a gathering point for opposition groups, is perceived as an al-Qaida territory, it means taking hostage 2 million civilians there in a sense.
Ankara is concerned about Idlib from many angles. As Ufuk Ulutaş mentioned in his article in the Akşam daily: "Turkey's intervention in Idlib to observe the no-conflict zone was being discussed, but the situation became more complicated after the recent developments. Turkey's intervention in Idlib now means a hot conflict with al-Nusra. When compared to the PKK, the al-Nusra problem is not a priority problem for Turkey, but because the salvation of Idlib will directly affect Turkey, Turkey has to be active and present its own national approach."
What kind of an approach has Ankara adopted? The PYD is afraid of Turkey's intervention in Idlib and threatens the U.S. with withdrawal from Raqqa to prevent this. Against this, Turkey can conduct an operation on Idlib by reaching an agreement with Russia as a right of self-defense, but this means confronting al-Nusra, as Ulutaş points out. For that reason, it seems wiser to help and support opposition groups in the region instead of individual intervention.
In short, Idlib will be the black box of the coming period and a kind of Trojan horse that can be used against Turkey. We have to make smart and calm moves against it. On the other hand, Turkey does not have an easy task, as it is fighting the PKK at home and is under the threat of many terrorist organizations. Turkey should follow social engineering in Idlib and prevent the way to a PYD operation without entering Idlib. It should also withstand accusations by explaining its line in a patient manner instead of facing the West.