Complications for Turkey in Idlib

Turkey’s agreement with Russia to cease Turkish-Syrian hostilities in Idlib has paused the escalation spiral in northwestern Syria. Projected Turkish-Russian joint patrols have started on the strategic M4 highway despite the fact that some rebel groups, including Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), rejected the deal. Concerned about small violations that occurred last week, the Turkish government vowed to resume “heavy” attacks if the cease-fire is broken. The durability of the cease-fire, however, is shaky because the parties’ interpretation of the agreement and long-term plans are contradictory: for Ankara, it is a step forward to establish an enduring military presence in Idlib city; for Damascus, it is a break to reorganize after devastating Turkish attacks and thus to make plans for the next phase of assaults on the rebels. For Moscow, the agreement provided reassurance to keep Turkey in the Astana and Sochi processes in which Russia has long invested, where Ankara recognized and accepted the territorial integrity of Syria.

Ankara’s Uncertain Calculations

From Ankara’s perspective, two key issues need to be addressed immediately. First, with the downfall of the Turkey-backed Syrian Interim Government of the opposition in northern Syria following the regime’s military advances in the past year, Turkey has exerted more pressure on HTS—the dominant rebel group in Idlib—to assure the international community by moderating its position. Notably, with the latest agreement in Moscow, Turkey renewed its respect for Syria’s territorial integrity as well as its commitment to fight against all groups on the United Nations terror list. Despite the 2018 Sochi agreement’s reference to the elimination of “radical terrorist groups,” the addendum in the latest cease-fire agreement is more precise by including the words, “as designated by the UNSC [United Nations Security Council].” Having previous ties to al-Qaeda, HTS is on the UN terror list; it is not clear how Ankara will respond to potential regime attacks on HTS. Because it is almost impossible to separate HTS operatives from the civilian population, Turkey’s justification for protesting such regime attacks will likely focus on millions of civilians in Idlib, as the agreement states that the “targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure cannot be justified under any pretext.” Still, having its own interests and calculations that are independent from the Turkish government, HTS remains a headache for Ankara.

Although the latest agreement with Russia stopped regime assaults for the moment, it did not address the core problem.

Second, the Syrian refugee crisis has reached an explosive level along the Turkish border with a million people who escaped the regime’s attacks. Although the latest agreement with Russia stopped regime assaults for the moment, it did not address the core problem. Understanding the impossibility of tolerating the status quo, Turkey called the European countries to provide “concrete support” beyond financial assistance—with a long list of demands, including military support on the Turkish-Syrian border with reconnaissance aircrafts and surveillance drones as well as more ships in the eastern Mediterranean. The abrupt end of the recent meeting between Erdoğan and the European Union leadership, however, foreshadows a bumpy road ahead. To be sure, Ankara’s options are extremely restricted as it must enforce moderation on the part of the extremists as well as address the deepening refugee crisis.

Will Turkey Use HTS to Eliminate Extremists?

Turkey’s relations with HTS are complicated. Ankara designated the group as a terrorist organization in compliance with the United Nations Security Council. Not long ago, Turkey was supporting Ahrar al-Sham (a rival Islamist group) and some other rebel groups in order to curb HTS’s influence. While Ahrar al-Sham was the biggest rebel group, HTS decisively won the intra-Islamist conflict and therefore the Turkey-backed factions have gradually become fragmented and lost their strength. HTS’s established hegemony and its social base led Turkey to recalculate its strategy: Ankara has chosen to engage the HTS leadership in its military interventions as part of a cooperation accord against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). At the same time, it has been conducting intelligence operations aimed to destroy al-Qaeda elements within HTS through targeted assassinations. The Turkish operations also included tapping internal HTS communications to leak the information later in order to trigger major defections from the group. Ankara has successfully unified all weakened opposition groups under one military umbrella and its political representation, the opposition Syrian Interim Government, with a hope to balance the influence of HTS.

The Syrian regime’s military operations during the past year, however, provided a devastating blow to this umbrella government—a development that led to increasing Turkish engagement with HTS and deliberations to unify armed forces in defense of Idlib. There are strong indicators that Ankara has silently adopted a policy to compel HTS to moderate its position in exchange for Turkish support for international recognition as a legitimate opposition force. During the past few months, the HTS leadership invited western journalists to visit Idlib; this was a drastic departure from the actions of its predecessor, the Nusra Front, which kidnapped foreigners. Following the Syrian regime’s intense attacks after February 2020, HTS leader Abu Muhammad al-Joulani increased his media visibility by giving many interviews, including a long conversation with the International Crisis Group. Al-Joulani highlighted HTS’s pledge to focus exclusively on the struggle against the Assad regime and “not use Syria as a launching pad for external operations,” adding that the group will not “allow others to use” Syria “for such a purpose” either.

Turkey is likely to force the change within HTS’s structure, which may prepare the groundwork for a unification of HTS with the Turkey-backed rebel groups. The group did not only renounce the global jihad of al-Qaeda but also al-Qaeda’s strictest recruitment approach. HTS now pursues a lenient enlistment strategy that has absorbed thousands of religiously nonobservant fighters, and thus, the rank-and-file composition of the group has also changed.

With HTS to be changed from within and open to cooperation with Turkey, Ankara hopes to further marginalize more dangerous groups.

With HTS to be changed from within and open to cooperation with Turkey, Ankara hopes to further marginalize more dangerous groups. These comprise foreign Caucasian, Uzbek, Uighur, and Arab fighters under various organizational umbrellas as well as Hurras al-Din, which is al-Qaeda’s current official branch in Syria. These groups often reject Turkey-Russia deals but, at the same time, cooperate with HTS on shared interests—which risks to complicate the dynamics on the ground. Moreover, Moscow is particularly demanding the elimination of the Caucasian and Central Asian fighters who may pose a direct threat to Russia in the future. When conditions become ripe, Turkey may convince HTS to eradicate these marginal groups “to prove” itself for international legitimacy. Hurras al-Din, for example, is seen as a rising threat among US counterterrorism experts, as the group’s “foreign terrorist fighters” constitute “a much higher proportion than in the case of” HTS, according to a UN Security Council report.

Pitting HTS against al-Qaeda and other radical groups, however, may compromise Turkish domestic security as some of these groups have already developed networks to operate within Turkey, benefiting from cross border mobilization in the past decade. Moreover, the Turkish government’s collaboration with HTS may backfire due to contextual factors because the group’s self-interest calculations will not always overlap with Turkey’s interests. Thus, Ankara will face very difficult choices.

Turkey’s Refugee Crisis

Since 2014, Turkey has served as the top host country for displaced persons from Syria, with the largest number of refugees in the world. Due to the politicization of the refugee issue, the Turkish government is reluctant to accept more Syrians who escape from the brutal attacks of the Syrian regime. Already hosting almost four million refugees, Turkey is anxious about the fate of Idlib’s three million civilians as they have no place to go other than the Turkish border, if the regime resumes its military operations. By repeating his promises to relocate Turkey’s Syrian refugees inside Syrian territory, Erdoğan aimed to calm public anxiety; and yet, his long failure to deliver is now combined with a possibility of welcoming even more refugees. Thus domestically, Erdoğan perceives the issue as existential and that is why he and his government assert that Damascus must be stopped in Idlib by all means necessary. There are already hundreds of thousands of refugees along the Turkish border who continue to demand immediate attention by the Turkish government.

The deployment of thousands of Turkish soldiers inside Idlib—and still maintaining these troops after signing the cease-fire—is a strong indication that Turkey is dedicated to defending the last bastion. If Turkey’s deterrence strategy proves to be successful, millions of civilians will live under HTS rule, leading to what some experts call the “Gazafication” of Idlib. Ankara believes that such a scenario may be sustainable only if Turkey would receive support for­—or some form of acquiescence to—its interests in the province from the European Union and NATO. Otherwise, with the lack of international legitimacy, Turkey’s long-term presence on Syrian territory will be most costly and dangerous. The Syrian regime, with the help of Russia, has begun to restore its international credibility by advancing closer ties with the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Ankara fears that a backlash may unfold in the form of support for Kurdish forces that threaten Turkey—namely the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot, the YPG. This is a trend that has already started according to local sources.

Erdoğan’s current primary request from European leaders is not financial but a long-term commitment to secure Idlib’s civilian population.

That is why—unlike the previous deal in 2016 with the European Union regarding the refugees—Erdoğan’s current primary request from European leaders is not financial but a long-term commitment to secure Idlib’s civilian population. Turkey’s European partners in NATO appear to be reluctant thus far; they are especially disturbed by the Turkish government’s opening of its borders with Greece and its deploying of Turkish special forces to halt the refugee pushback from Greek police. Recently, the Turkish government stepped back from confrontation at the Greek border, with an understanding that such a strategy—what Europeans widely perceive as “blackmailing”—could elicit the reverse effect of Turkey’s demands: it touches the nationalist nerve in the European populace at a time when anxiety regarding a coronavirus outbreak is at its zenith.

The most likely help from Europe, however, will be in financial terms to assuage the economic stress on the Turkish government—and not in military support to save Idlib’s future. Thus, the European powers’ cynicism toward the Syrian conflict pushes Ankara to seek help from the top NATO partner, the United States.

A Divided Washington

Erdoğan’s call for Washington’s help, in the wake of the attacks that led to the killing of scores of Turkish soldiers, has led to a vibrant discussion inside the US government. Some perceive Turkey’s growing need to show strength against Russia as a true opportunity for the United States to restore the broken trust between Ankara and Washington. It is no secret that the US Special Representative for Syria, Ambassador James Jeffrey, is a lead figure in this camp and has been pressing the Department of Defense to provide Patriot missiles to Ankara, which will be used as a deterrent to Russian air dominance in the battlefield. With American military support, according to the pro-Turkey argument, Ankara would be emboldened to pursue a military ground campaign to clear a protected zone large enough to allow millions of civilians to live securely. This may then be followed by a targeted operation against al-Qaeda elements.

Erdoğan’s call for Washington’s help, in the wake of the attacks that led to the killing of scores of Turkish soldiers, has led to a vibrant discussion inside the US government.

Others, especially those in Pentagon circles, are skeptical of supporting what they call Turkey’s “reckless” military adventures because such actions may demand increased US commitment in Syria and drag American forces into a quagmire. Moreover, in the past few years, the United States and Turkey have not been in agreement on Syria’s future due to the Kurdish issue, which will likely remain a thorny one. Therefore, without seeing a significant shift in Ankara’s perspective on the Syrian Kurds, some in Washington may not desire to change American policy. In addition, given that Turkey is still dedicated to deploying Russian S-400 systems, there is no guarantee for Washington to witness a reorientation of Ankara toward the NATO axis against Moscow. To be assured of Turkey’s serious commitment, US officials want to see Ankara return the S-400 systems back to Russia as a first step.

With or without Patriot systems, Turkey will surely need some sort of support from the United States for its plans to moderate HTS and ensure the security of civilians. Concerns about the humanitarian crisis is also increasing demands to stop the mass slaughter in Idlib. Ankara may find support for limited US assistance with intelligence and diplomatic means, and this will test the willingness of both sides to cooperate in the long term.

Mustafa Gurbuz is a Non-resident Fellow at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Mustafa and read his previous publications click here

Photo credit: Anadolu Agency