Turkey's position in the Idlib conundrum

OBAIDA HITTO
Published 04.06.2019 00:12

The offensive on northern Syria's Idlib that has gone on for more than three weeks now has put extreme pressure on the Turkey-Russia relationship and that pressure has been diffused in some ways and displaced in others.

Turkey and Russia are two of the three guarantors of the Astana process and the subsequent Sochi agreement that was reached last September. Ironically, the Sochi agreement was meant to prevent a doomed scenario in Idlib.

More than eight months of relative calm has now been shattered by the nearly month-long escalation using aerial bombardment and a groun​d offensive against opposition-controlled areas.

Russia uses the excuse of attacking terrorists to justify the use of barrel bombs and targeting of hospitals and other critical infrastructure. All these actions are violations of international law and the people most affected are civilians.

Regime attacks have put undue pressure on Ankara. Locals thought that 12 Turkish observation points were meant to prevent such attacks. Since they are directly in the line of fire, they are partially blaming Turkey's failed efforts to hold Russia to its word regarding the Sochi Agreement. Some have gone so far as to claim Turkey is a partner in crime regarding the regime and Russia's attacks on civilians in Idlib.

To further complicate the situation, the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government has been forced to address accusations published in an opposition newspaper, Aydınlık. The article quotes journalists who met Bashar Assad, and he informed that a Syrian government delegation had met with Turkey's intelligence chief Hakan Fidan. In response to these accusations, AK Party spokesman Ömer Çelik explained such meetings in times of war are not out of the ordinary and he cannot say whether this meeting actually happened.

Some suggest that this is part of a rehabilitation of Turkey-Syria relations since the Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu was once misquoted saying that "Ankara is open to the idea of working with Assad." But most references to his quote forget to add that he followed the statement with "only if he won a fair and democratic election."

Even President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said that low-level contacts still exist between Ankara and Damascus. But as AK Party spokesman Ömer Çelik explains, these relationships are maintained so that the countries can avoid certain humanitarian disasters, like the one brewing in Idlib.

Despite desperate efforts by Russia and the regime to reinvigorate a level of legitimacy behind Assad, the recent escalation in Idlib has significantly jeopardized the Russian venture of rehabilitating Assad's position in the eyes of Ankara – not as long as the AK Party is in power.

The political fallout from a potential all-out Russian backed regime offensive to retake the last non-Turkey backed opposition-controlled territory in northern Syria has proven to be too costly for Turkey. That is why Ankara has taken alternative routes to deal with the strained relations with Moscow.

The U.N.'s Mark Lowcock specified a possible all-out offensive to take Idlib to be the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century. To prepare for an influx of refugees Turkey is assessing its emergency stocks and its ability to reach the most vulnerable people in a timely manner. However, with more than a million people expected to reach the Turkish border in the case of an offensive and many of them with their sights set on reaching Europe; there may not be a lot Turkey can do for the displaced civilians.

Countermeasures against the regime offensive

In order to counter these mounting pressures, Turkey has opened the door for Syrian opposition fighters to rally behind a large-scale counteroffensive. First, it has facilitated the mobilization of hundreds of Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters from Turkey-backed territories to Idlib. They arrived on the front line with vehicles, heavy weapons, ammunition and fighters.

Second, Turkey has also facilitated the delivery of critical anti-tank missiles to front lines, more commonly known as TOW missiles. About two weeks since the Russian backed regime offensive, opposition groups started posting videos of targeted regime tanks, armored personnel carriers, heavy machine guns, and even infantry with these missiles. The result has been the demoralization of regime forces that did not expect such strong resistance and significant material and human losses to the army already fatigued by eight years of war.

Even though Russian airpower has given the regime some advantages, the fighting on the ground has proven quite difficult. The regime losses have been significant, especially human losses as well as equipment, tanks and heavy machine guns. The result is partly thanks to Turkish efforts in unifying the opposition to counter a Russian-backed Regime offensive.

Part of the problem for Turkey is the Russian pretext to organize attacks. As part of the Sochi deal, Turkey is expected to disconnect the opposition from armed groups with links to al-Qaida. This has proven quite difficult in Idlib because the main group controlling the province claims to have severed its ties with al-Qaida, but has also fought FSA groups to control the province. Since those groups escaped to Turkey-backed territories when the fighting broke out last spring, the relationship between the opposition groups and the former al-Qaida affiliate, known as Hayat Tahrir al Shaam (HTS), has been complicated.

The recent developments in Idlib have shown some light in this regard. There seems to be potential for a breakthrough in mending the relations between the HTS and the Turkey-backed armed opposition. This may give Turkey a stronger position at the negotiation table. It will also give the opposition an advantage that they haven't possessed; now that they do not seem defeated, they will strengthen the Turkish hand in international talks for a political solution. Even though efforts for the formation of a constitutional committee have been delayed, the current developments in Idlib may actually help all the conflicting parties to realize that the status quo must change and more weight should be given to real political change and transition.

* Producer at TRT World

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