From Oct. 8-12, Turkish intelligence and special forces elements carried out reconnaissance in Syria north of Idlib and south of Afrin while maintaining contacts with Sunni opposition units that control the region. This preparatory activity was actually shaping an operational theater. Afterward, a Turkish detachment of about 100 commandos, 30 vehicles, and construction and military engineering equipment entered Syria.
An Oct. 13 statement from the Turkish military high command said Turkish troops that will serve in the Idlib de-escalation zone had begun erecting military observation posts, as specified during the peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. That night, a second Turkish detachment, which was operating M60T Sabra and Leopard 2 tanks, entered Syria and began deploying at Sheikh Barakat, an 842-meter-high (2,762-foot-high) mountain that dominates Afrin.
The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called Turkey’s deployment north of Idlib “a blatant aggression against the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria and a clear violation of international law and its principles.”
The Idlib operation launched Oct. 13 marks the third time the Turkish army has entered Syrian territory in less than three years. A February 2015 operation relocated the tomb of Suleiman Shah, which was threatened by the Islamic State (IS). In August 2016, Operation Euphrates Shield began clearing the Jarablus-al Rai-al Bab triangle of IS elements; that campaign lasted seven months.
Now, according to the Astana accords, Turkish soldiers will serve for six months inside and north of Idlib. Ankara’s goal with this deployment is to construct 14 observation outposts in the 50-kilometer (31-mile) stretch between Reyhanli, Turkey, and Mare, Syria, which is already incorporated into the Operation Euphrates Shield territory. This would enable Ankara to set up a de-escalation zone north of Idlib while controlling the dominating elevations of Sheikh Barakat south of Afrin, which would form a military belt around Afrin.
Now eyes are on Turkey's 155 mm howitzers and 122 mm multiple rocket launcher systems at Reyhanli. If these heavy fire support vehicles also enter Syria, it would mean Turkey would be extending its fire coverage to Afrin, thus bringing the entire Afrin area under its control without even dominating the airspace. Moreover, for radical groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to hand over such a dominating land feature as Sheikh Barakat to Turkish soldiers without clashing indicates that the negotiations between Ankara and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham have yielded results, at least north of Idlib. Now the focus is on the ground negotiations on Idlib, which Ankara is carrying out, watched carefully by Russia.
Security sources have told Al-Monitor that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham groups in Idlib have been offered alternatives: lay down their weapons and demobilize and be allowed to remain in Idlib for the time being; become moderates and join the Free Syrian Army controlled by Ankara; or engage in clashes. Reports say those who agree to join the FSA and their families will not be allowed to stay in Idlib but will be transferred to the enclave cleared by Operation Euphrates Shield.
This is why we may well see the evacuation of large groups of people by bus from the Idlib area to the Euphrates Shield pocket. Those who remain in Idlib but insist on keeping their weapons will be considered radical elements or terrorists. This is the most critical element: Will Hayat Tahrir al-Sham-affiliated radical groups inside or around Idlib resort to armed resistance? This would directly affect efforts to create the Idlib de-escalation zone and could rapidly turn the cease-fire monitoring mission into a cease-fire enforcement mission.
I personally believe these radical elements will choose to lose themselves in the human terrain and prepare for a long-term, low-intensity campaign of terror attacks.
At the Astana talks, Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed to send 500 troops each to the Idlib area. Turkey is expected to send more, but so far there's been no word of any major military movements by Russia and Iran to that area. It appears Iran and Russia are waiting for Turkey to complete its military deployment and for the negotiation process on the ground to end. Meanwhile, Russian and Syrian regime air attacks against radical elements inside Idlib continue unabated.
Can these military moves by Turkey escalate to a major military operation against Afrin? My answer is yes, that Ankara wants this very much — but only if Russia approves.
We therefore have to monitor three key military indicators on the ground. First, will the Russian soldiers already in Afrin withdraw? Second, will Russia open the airspace that it firmly controls west of the Euphrates to Turkish war planes and helicopters? Finally, will the Syrian army be allowed to approach the region? Looking at the options, my assessment is that Russia will not allow Turkey to impose full control over Afrin beyond laying siege to its south.
As I stressed in an earlier article, Russia, by holding Turkey at bay against possible action on Afrin, wants to discourage further deepening of US ties with the (Kurdish) People's Protection Units (YPG) in Afrin. Turkish officials say the US-backed YPG is an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party, which Turkey considers a terrorist group.
Then the most logical choice for Russia is to allow Turkey some degree of control south of Afrin to appease Ankara, while encouraging negotiations between the YPG — which currently controls Afrin — and the Assad regime for the Syrian army to assume control there.
Would this Russian plan work? We should ask the Russians: The situation is heating up by the day. Is there a de-escalation plan for a potential Turkish military-YPG confrontation south of Afrin?