Russia, Turkey size up challenges and opportunities in Idlib

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Article Summary
In the run-up to the presidential summit in Tehran, Russia and Turkey continue to weigh their options for Idlib.

On Sept. 7 the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran will meet in Tehran for the third trilateral summit on Syria as part of the Astana process. The agenda is likely to center around the situation in Idlib, the largest area still controlled by the Syrian opposition. Ankara would like to keep Idlib under rebel control until the end of the peace process, while Moscow and Tehran are pushing for an offensive against opposition factions. On Sept. 4, the Russian and Syrian air forces resumed their strikes on Idlib after a three-week pause. This may signal that preparation for a ground operation has entered its final stage.

Although an assault on Idlib is almost inevitable, its scale is still under debate, and this will likely be a subject of the talks in Tehran. Turkey may indeed provide some concessions by yielding certain northwestern areas to the regime forces. However, these concessions should be made in a way that would not put the rebel factions under the threat of elimination, disarmament or any critical losses. Every party should be able to “save face.”

It should be kept in mind, however, that the so-called “Greater Idlib” region, which includes parts of Aleppo, Latakia and Hama provinces, should not be considered the “last stronghold” of the opposition. The so-called “Turkish protectorate” — including the northern Aleppo, Afrin, al-Bab, Jarablus and Azaz districts that fell under Turkish control following the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations — hosts almost 35,000 Syrian National Army troops, controlled by Turkey. The territory is also virtually covered by the Turkish air defense system, which enables Turkish air forces to operate in the area, when needed.

At the same time, the politicians in Ankara realize that if the opposition loses Idlib, the Syrian government will not stop there. In an effort to re-establish its authority over the entire country, the regime would then assault the “Turkish protectorate.” Therefore, until Turkey’s leadership has decided to leave Syria, it is a matter of principle for Ankara to maintain the opposition’s control over most of Idlib or even integrate the area into Turkey's protectorate to secure itself. Local moderate opposition factions, amounting to around 50,000 fighters united into the National Liberation Front, may join the Syrian National Army.

Recently, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan once again emphasized his strong opposition to any offensive by Assad and his allies.

“We will take the situation to a positive point at this summit. ... God willing, we will be able to hinder the Syrian government’s extremism in the region,” Erdogan told reporters on his plane while coming back from a visit to Kyrgyzstan.

“In a situation like this, where will the fleeing people go to? A large proportion of them will come to Turkey,” he added, signaling Turkey’s biggest preoccupation over the consequences of the offensive.

Earlier that day, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, at a press conference in Ankara with his German counterpart Heiko Maas, urged a “common strategy to eliminate radical groups in Idlib” but said the continuation of attacks would be disastrous.

These circumstances have caused Moscow and Ankara to continue to seek a compromise. This may be ultimately based on a white paper — Turkey’s own suggestions for Idlib as set forth July 22 in Arabic media. It seems to suggest that all rebel factions from Idlib could be merged into the pro-Turkish Syrian National Army.

Also, there are plans to reopen the M5 highway between Aleppo and Homs for transportation; the route could be jointly controlled by Russia and Turkey. Opposition sources told Al-Monitor that Ankara will not stop the regime from taking over rebel-controlled areas of Hama and Latakia provinces — a direction from which Assad and his allies would most likely start the Idlib offensive; this is also an area from which Russia's Defense Ministry argues a provocation with the use of chemicals is being planned. The M5 runs through parts of Idlib province.

Taking this in account, a possible compromise over Idlib may look as follows: Turkey might keep the city of Idlib and areas between the city and the Turkish border under control of the opposition, thus expanding the “protectorate” over these territories. Other parts of Greater Idlib would be allowed to be taken over by Assad.  

However, this scenario will become real only if Russia and Turkey manage to solve another common problem — ousting the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham terrorist group, which consists of some 20,000 militants. They are gathered along the border between Syria and Turkey and in the center of Idlib province.

Solving the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham problem exclusively by force involves serious risks. The Syrian regime had success in eastern Ghouta, Daraa and Quneitra after local opposition groups were bombed but then negotiated their departure from those areas for the northwest, keeping at least their light weapons; some even joined the regime’s forces. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, however, cannot be moved anywhere or negotiated with, as it is officially recognized as a terrorist organization. To make the matters worse, the group is combat-capable, rather efficient, and, being pushed against the Turkish border, it is high-motivated to resist to the very end. Assad and his allies haven’t experienced such a major operation. For instance, the destroyed Islamic State enclave in Daraa consisted of 1,000-2,000 militants at most, 10 times less than the possible number of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham terrorists.

This should give Moscow and Ankara a solid interest in coming up with a solution, over time, for the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham problem. The Russians have probably already secured Turkey’s assistance to design the general plan of confrontation against the group. This may mean that Turkey will be able to divide the jihadis, persuading some factions to leave Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and join the legal National Liberation Front. In late August Ankara negotiated with the leadership of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, requesting that the group be dissolved. When Abu Mohammad al-Julani, the commander of the group, refused to engage on Aug. 28 Turkey formally listed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham as a terrorist organization.

This measure should have shown the group’s leaders that they could no longer hope for any support from Turkey. Moreover, Ankara managed to seize control over at least a part of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham factions. This, too, should mean it is not impossible for Turkey to manage to dissolve and fragment Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.

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Kirill Semenov is an independent analyst with a yearslong record of professional study of political and military situations in the Middle East with a strong focus on conflicts in Syria, Yemen and Libya. He is also a non-resident expert of the Russian International Affairs Council.

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