Tensions are running high in Idlib, where the Bashar Assad regime's forces, backed by Russia and Iran, have been trying to seize control for some time. The Astana process, which Turkey and Russia worked hard to establish, is on the verge of collapse. A large number of Turkish troops have already been deployed to Idlib. This tiny piece of land, occupied by hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians and several thousand soldiers, sets the stage for conflicting interests, goals and expectations.
According to sources on the ground, the Assad regime aims to control the entire province – as opposed to the strategically important M4 and M5 highways. He wants Idlib because it is the final stronghold of the Syrian opposition. If Assad takes this area, he will declare himself the victor of the bloody civil war that started back in 2011. Diplomatic efforts to draft a new Syrian constitution and facilitate free and fair elections will end. Assad will act like nothing ever happened in Syria – that millions of people have not been forced to flee the country, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have not lost their lives, and terrible atrocities have not been committed.
Iran supports the regime's plan out of sectarianism. But what's in it for Russia? Moscow believes that an increase in the regime's strength will translate into stronger Russian influence on the ground. Russia thus doubles down, seeing that the United States is becoming weaker in the region, despite the objections of Turkey, with which Russians enjoy cordial relations. In other words, the Kremlin wants to call the shots in Syria. There has been no indication that Moscow is willing to burn the bridges with Ankara. For now, the Russians are trying to see how the Turks react to their military and political support for the Assad regime. Moscow thus pushes the buttons of Turkey's foreign policy establishment.
Turkey cares about Idlib for two reasons. First, the country will face a very serious refugee problem if the province falls. Turkey, which hosts close to 4 million Syrian refugees already, cannot handle a larger refugee community. A new influx of refugees would spell disaster for Ankara and the rest of Europe. At the same time, if Turkey were to withdraw from Idlib, it would put in danger all of the areas that Turkish forces have liberated from terrorist groups as part of the Euphrates Shield, Olive Branch, and Peace Spring operations. In those parts of Syria, the Turks successfully curbed the terrorist organization PKK/YPG's influence and stopped terror attacks against Turkish citizens. Turkey's cross-border presence enables it to face the threat of terrorism outside its territory. If Idlib falls and those safe areas face danger, it will undermine Turkey's national security strategy.
Hence the conflict of interest in Idlib. The regime forces made significant advances in the region, where the Turkish military operates a number of observation posts. Some of those military outposts are currently in regime-controlled territory. The regime also attacked Turkish forces and killed 14 soldiers. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan responded to those attacks by threatening to retaliate against the regime across Syria. At the same time, Turkey ramped up its military presence in Idlib. The Turkish forces are now all around the region, holding territory that the regime hopes to conquer and predicting that they will stop Assad's forces. Meanwhile, the Syrian opposition has obtained new military equipment.
There have been no attacks against Turkish troops since Erdoğan's ultimatum. So what comes next? The Syrian opposition downed two regime helicopters in recent days, alleviating some of the pressure from Assad's airpower and forcing the regime to fight on land. If Assad refuses to halt his offensive and withdraw to the Sochi line of demarcation, there will be a land battle in Idlib. Turkey is determined and prepared to see this process through. Russia will determine the regime's response.
Today's meeting between Turkish and Russian officials will probably determine Idlib's fate. Russia, which has been testing Turkey's capabilities, must understand that a point of no return has been reached in Idlib: Any further escalation will lead to a military confrontation.
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