1. Five reasons why Erdogan can’t win in Syria...and may need an assist from Putin
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said today that a military escalation in Idlib province in Syria is “a matter of time” unless Bashar al-Assad’s army withdraws to boundaries agreed with Russia back in September 2018.
Unfortunately, the Sochi Memorandum between Ankara and Moscow, which defined de-escalation borders as well as 12 Turkish military observation outposts, may now be a mostly dead letter. The Syrian military, backed by Russia and Iran, blew by those boundaries in recent weeks, including 10 of the 12 outposts, killing 13 Turkish soldiers and one military personnel member in the process.
It’s hard to imagine what Erdogan “wins” by going heavy into northwestern Syria with 10,000 troops and 2,000 artillery, tanks and armored vehicles. Instead, he may be digging a bigger hole in the Syrian sand. In the end, he will likely need an assist from Russian President Vladimir Putin for a face-saving exit strategy.
Here are 5 reasons why escalating the military conflict is likely to complicate, rather than solve, Turkey’s troubles in Syria:
Assad claims victory: Assad isn’t concerned that the violence in Syria has reached a “horrifying” new level, according to the head of UN humanitarian affairs. Assad is also not concerned that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for an immediate cease-fire. The Syrian president is instead crowing about having retaken dozens of key villages in Idlib province, including control of the strategic M5 highway, a long-sought war objective, and consolidating government control over Aleppo province. In a celebratory speech Feb. 17, Assad said the offensive will continue despite “ome empty sound bubbles coming from the north,” referring to Erdogan.
Russia has Syria’s back: At least for now. While Erdogan faulted Russian “negligence” for the Syrian army’s killing of eight Turkish soldiers and civilians in Idlib province Feb. 3, which began the recent escalation, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrovblamed Turkey for making matters “worse” by not separating terrorist groups (those linked to Jabhat al-Nusra, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS) from more moderate or nationalist opposition forces., as called for in Sochi.
De facto partnership with HTS: On that point. HTS “is a de facto ally of Turkey,” explains Fehim Tastekin. It “has lost nothing of its jihadi core that seeks a state based on Sharia law. The group will not lose its jihadi character even if it rebrands itself again … Regardless of what Ankara’s intentions are, its latest intervention in Idlib has put the Turkish military on the same side with [HTS] and its allies.” On Jan. 29, Erdogan referred to those “defending their own land” as “resistance fighters,” not terrorists. Both the United States and the UN Security Council have designated HTS a terrorist group.
Turkey’s opposition calls for dialogue with Assad: Turkey’s opposition parties in parliament, representing half of Turkey’s population, opposed Erdogan’s decisions to take on the Syrian military, and have called for a dialogue with Assad’s government to end the fighting (see the report by Sibel Hurtas here).
More fighting means more refugees: Going heavy into Idlib, and escalating hostilities with Syria, does nothing to stem the exodus of those displaced by the fighting. The number of displaced since January has reached 900,000, according to the United Nations, and they are mostly heading toward Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million refugees. Erdogan’s aspirations for a new refugee haven in Idlib proper, in addition to the Turkish-controlled corridor in the northwest, seem a reach, as Metin Gurcan explains.
Our take: Syria is becoming Erdogan’s endless war. Russian and Turkish officials meeting in Moscow this week could not reach agreement on a ceasefire but will keep talking. Despite the tough rhetoric, Erdogan has to know he is facing an abyss in Syria, and the least worst path out probably begins with Putin. Erdogan can’t win with a military escalation that results in more casualties, more refugees and more friction with Russia. Neither US President Donald Trump nor European powers will bail him out, as Amberin Zaman explains. Putin will need to factor in some face-saving for Erdogan, perhaps with an understanding in the east, where Erdogan can’t afford an escalation with the Syrian Kurds and therefore a two-front war. Now that Assad has captured the key M5 highway, Putin may feel it's time to resurrect the shuttle diplomacy he began last month. Guterres’ call for a cease-fire may give Putin some leverage with Assad, and the Russian president may now have a calling card with Trump to try broker a cease-fire.
Read more:Kirill Semenov has more on the talks between Russian and Turkish officials in Moscow.
2. Iran’s hard-line Assembly of Experts about to get more hard-line
Iran’s hard-line Assembly of Experts will hold its midterm (four-year) elections this week. The assembly’s most consequential task will be to select the successor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
As with the vote for the Islamic Consultative Assembly, or parliament, on Feb. 21, the results of the Assembly of Experts midterms will be a downer for Iran’s waning reform movement, as the deck is stacked for a hard-liner sweep.
Background: There are 88 “expert” clerics in the assembly, which is tasked with choosing and monitoring the next supreme leader according to what they consider the highest standards of revolutionary jurisprudence. Most are over 70.
Why it matters: The hard-liner-dominated vetting council rejected many Reformist candidates. “As Khamenei ages, the assembly has been attracting attention,” writes Rohollah Faghihi.
Our take: Faghihi concludes, “Despairing over the mass disqualification of their candidates and believing that even successful candidates will be left ineffective in the parliament and the Assembly of Experts, many moderates and Reformists have decided not to run at all. Hence, the road seems clear for the hard-liners to take full control over both bodies.”
3. Jordan fuming over peace plan...and electricity bills
No surprise: protests over Trump plan continue: There has been a steady stream of demonstrations in Jordan since the announcement of the Trump Administrations Peace to Prosperity Plan on January 28, as well as increased protests against an Israeli-Jordanian natural gas deal. This is hardly a surprise. Although the Trump plan acknowledges Jordan’s key role in the region, and with the holy sites in Jerusalem, Amman is feeling sideswiped because of the plan’s deep unpopularity with Palestinians. King Abdullah II is not inclined to have to explain, remind or defend the Hashemites’ special role with the Haram al-Sharif and Al-Aqsa compound. Talk of annexation of the West Bank and Jordan Valley is explosive in Jordan. Roughly half of Jordan’s population is Palestinian, and the kingdom hosts over 2 million Palestinian refugees.
Fuming over electricity: Meanwhile, as Osama al-Sharif reports, “Jordanians are fuming over a massive hike in electricity prices for January compared to the previous month — an increase of 30% to 80% for most and double for some. Hundreds of thousands of customers have been affected, and the issue has become a public relations disaster for the government that had previously promised not to introduce new taxes or raise the price for electricity and water.”
For more: Keep an eye on Jordan bellwether to regional fallout of the Trump administration’s Peace to Prosperity plan, as the government grapples with providing services to a young and vocal population. Check out the fantastic coverage of developments in Jordan by Osama al-Sharif here.
One other cool thing:
Iraqi Kurdistan capital’s rich heritage
“Nestled in the plains of northern Iraq, Erbil is one of the oldest continually inhabited areas in the world. Historically, it acted as both a gateway and a buffer between Mesopotamia and Iran,” writes Joshua Levkowitz, reflecting both Ottoman influences and the region’s distinct Kurdish culture. Read it here.
What we're reading ... and why:
UN assesses Iraq’s marginalized generation of children
This UN report is some grim but necessary reading on the educational needs of children who lived under the Islamic State. The study concludes, “Many children who were in school when living under [Islamic State] control are now young adults, making them too old to attend mainstream schools and are left with no alternative options … creating a marginalised generation of children and young adults, many of whom are or will be entering adulthood without any post-primary schooling.” Read the report here.
In case you missed it:
Is Muqtada al-Sadr losing influence?
Once considered among Iraq’s most formidable figures, Iraqi populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is losing support, according to Renad Mansour and Ben Robin D’Cruz at Chatham House. “Once the champion of Iraq’s protest movement, Sadr has seemingly changed course and now leads the counter-protests,” they write. In flirting with Iran and “in seeking to exploit a crisis for short-term gain, Sadr may well have sealed his fate — in the long term — as a declining force in Iraqi politics.” Read the article here.
And check out the related article on Sadr by Al-Monitor’s Omar Sattar here.
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