Idlib and the failure of the Turkish game

August 24, 2019
Idlib and the failure of the Turkish game
Rami Al-Khalifa Al-Ali

For the past few weeks, Idlib and the northern countryside of Hama province have been subjected to a ferocious attack by the forces of the Syrian regime and its allied militias.

This region has been under the control of the factions of the armed Syrian opposition and Al-Nusra Front affiliated to Al-Qaeda terrorist organization.

The region is also covered by the Astana and the Sochi agreement between Turkey and Russia which calls for a ceasefire in this area and for the heavy machinery of the armed Syrian opposition forces not to be used in areas under the control of the regime.

However, since the Sochi agreement was signed, the violations committed by the regime’s forces have never stopped.

Damascus was not happy with this agreement. Its attitude regarding it was similar to that of Russia. They both considered it a temporary agreement until the regime was able to control the entire northwest of Syria.

The advancing of the forces of the regime toward Idlib and the countryside of the province of Hama was a clear target for the regime. This target was fully supported by Russia.

However, the problem that faced the regime and Russia was the Turkish military observation posts established under the Sochi agreement.

Neither the Syrian regime nor Russia wanted any direct confrontation with Turkey. Therefore they started putting pressure on the Syrian opposition forces loyal to Turkey to pull out. The areas controlled by the opposition were a target for carpet -bombing by Russia and the forces of the regime.

However, there was another factor that cropped up. This was the expansion of Al-Nusra Front which most of the countries of the world, including Turkey, consider a terrorist organization.

During the past few months, Al-Nusra was able to control large areas. This provided Russia and the regime with an excuse in front of Turkey and the world to continue their brutal air strikes against these regions.

Turkey, meanwhile, stood idly by watching what was going on without doing anything, except signaling to the factions loyal to it to withdraw from the areas which Al-Nusra wanted to control.

This created a state of confusion with regard to Turkey’s attitude, as it did not insist on the implementation of the Sochi agreement nor did it extend support to the opposition forces loyal to it to enable them to fight the forces of the Syrian regime and the militias supporting it.

Furthermore, Turkey did not leave its 12 military observation posts. This means that it has accepted the status quo and recognized the regime’s control over Idlib and Hama. It appears to be satisfied with the military de-escalation areas of the Euphrates Shield and the Olive Oil Branch.

Otherwise, how can anyone explain or understand Ankara’s twisted policy in Idlib and its entire attitude to the situation in Syria?

Turkey’s policy toward Syria has passed through two phases: the first one was when the Syrian revolution broke out (2011) up until the foiled coup attempt in Turkey.

Turkey was certain that change was coming to Syria and that it had to prepare the ground for the post Assad era. It then decided to support the Syrian opposition and make it a puppet in the hands of Ankara so that it might afterwards control the situation in Syria.

This stance was coupled by a misreading of the Western attitude toward Syria especially that of the US. Turkey believed that Washington shared its desire to see Bashar Al-Assad gone.

This was, however, not a correct reading of the situation. At that point, the differences between Turkey and the US started to mount.

Ankara began to strongly oppose Russian intervention in Syria. The tension between the two countries took a new turn especially when Turkey downed a Russian military aircraft.

Despite its interests in Syria, Turkey hesitated to intervene for fear that this intervention might become a quagmire, which it later did. Ankara, however, paid a high price for this hesitation.

The second phase of Turkey’s policy on Syria followed the military coup attempt. Ankara put part of the blame for the attempted coup on the West.

The Turkish president then decided to play a dangerous game which consisted of putting pressure on the US by strengthening his ties with Russia. He also wanted to put pressure on Moscow through rapprochement with Washington.

The US did not bother about the closeness between Turkey and Russia and did not make any concessions regarding the Syrian situation as Recep Tayyib Erdogan had hoped.

On the contrary, the US increased its alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces (Kurdish militias), Turkey’s first enemy in Syria.

America’s unexpected reaction caused Turkey to further strengthen its ties with Russia and Iran. The Syrian opposition, loyal to Turkey was humiliated by the agreements of Astana and Sochi. The military de-escalation areas, of which Turkey was one of the guarantors, were sacrificed. The opposition forces were expelled and humiliated.

Turkey was submissive to Russia in Syria. It was Moscow that determined the size and nature of Turkish interests in Syria. Russia believed that other than the two areas of the Euphrates Shield and the Olive Oil Branch, Turkey should not stand against the control of the Syrian regime of Idlib and the countryside of Hama province.

At last what Erdogan hoped for had happened. This was a US concession that would give him a margin for maneuvering in his relationship with Russia. The US agreed to sign an agreement under which the two countries would establish an operations center in a safe area to the east of the Euphrates.

I do not think that this Turkish dream will be realized. Though this agreement was a complete fiasco, it might enable Turkey to go ahead with its open opposition to Russia’s attitude in Idlib.

Erdogan sent his troops to Khan Shaykhun which will not cover up the failure of Turkey’s game.This ploy looks like a death dance in front of the massive military advance of the forces of the regime and Russia in Idlib and the countryside of Hama province.

The author is a researcher in political philosophy and a Middle East expert.

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