Before the Raqqa operation, where the United States has been using the People's Protection Units (YPG) militants as a skeleton key, has been completed, all eyes turned to Idlib, a rebel-held province in northwestern Syria. On the surface, the reason why there is an ongoing discussion about Idlib's future is that an armed organization called the Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which presumably is linked to al-Qaida, has captured the province from the moderate rebels. In the wake of this development, U.S. President Donald Trump's Special Envoy to the anti-Daesh coalition, Brett McGurk, publicly identified Idlib as an al-Qaida stronghold and made thinly veiled accusations against Turkey – to which Ankara responded quite strongly.McGurk's controversial remarks indicate that the United States has started to show interest in Idlib, which is located just north of Latakia and near the Mediterranean shore. Needless to say, Washington's sudden interest in the area isn't related to HTS.
Clearly, Idlib has become more important since the Assad regime managed to establish control over Aleppo. The future of Aleppo, which had been under rebel control until recently, has been under review by Turkey, Russia and Iran as part of a broader plan to set up de-conflicting zones in Syria. According to İbrahim Kalın, the spokesman for the Turkish presidency, Idlib would have been under Turkish and Russian watch, had the de-conflicting zone agreement been completed. However, no significant progress has been made since Kalın's statement on June 22. In the meantime, the HTS captured Idlib.
It is no secret that certain intelligence agencies had been taking steps to weaken and divide the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which represents the moderate opposition in Syria, by either fueling tensions between the various factions within the group or engaging them to remove them from the FSA. Whether the rise of armed groups with alleged links to al-Qaida in Idlib took place thanks to such efforts, of course, remains unclear. Either way, the capture of Idlib by the HTS weakened the influence of both Moscow and Ankara over the area just as the two countries were preparing to assume more responsibility there. At the same time, it drew the attention of the United States and U.S.-backed groups like the YPG, which have been paying lip service to fighting terrorism to expand their sphere of influence in Syria, to Idlib.
Idlib, which is located right across from Turkey's southern border, is critically important for the country's national security. Hence why the Turks have been closely following the developments vis-à-vis Idlib's safety and control. Having sponsored the YPG terrorists in Syria, the U.S. could dispatch the group to Idlib citing the al-Qaida presence in the area. By doing so, Washington could foil Turkey's attempts, including Operation Euphrates Shield, to stop the YPG terrorists from creating a corridor that stretches from Iraq to the Mediterranean.
Keeping in mind Washington's policy toward Idlib and unwavering support to the YPG, Turkey might need to give the green light to a military operation in Afrin – which had been shelved for several weeks. If the U.S.-backed YPG militants enter Idlib and turn the city into a battle zone, the worsening security situation there could pose a serious risk to Turkey's national security. As such, Ankara has no time left to lose regarding Idlib.
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