The Challenges of Turkey’s Operation in Syria’s Idlib

After arduous efforts to reach an agreement with Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)—formerly known as al-Nusra Front, affiliated with al-Qaeda—the Turkish Armed Forces have deployed troops in northern Idlib across from People’s Protection Units (YPG) positions in the Afrin area. Turkey’s current operation is its second major incursion during the Syrian civil war, and pro-government media have reported the move as a victory over “terrorism.” Ankara has frequently vowed to cut the YPG’s route to the Mediterranean, which it called the “terror corridor.” Turkey’s observation posts in Idlib are an outcome of the Astana talks that proposed de-escalation zones enforced by Turkish, Russian, and Iranian troops. Thus, Ankara appears to manage Russian demands without engaging in clashes with HTS militants, and at the same time, to pursue its major goal of surrounding the Kurdish enclave of Afrin.

Turkey’s incursion into Idlib, however, may not promise success to Ankara in the long term. Damascus was quick to protest the Turkish military intervention as an act of “blatant aggression,” claiming that the operation violates the Astana agreements and demanding “immediate and unconditional withdrawal” from Idlib. Moscow and Damascus perceive HTS as a key threat in western Syria. Since the fall of Aleppo in December 2016, HTS has gained a stronghold to dominate the Syrian opposition—capturing the entire Turkish-Syrian border in Idlib and defeating Turkey-backed rebel groups including Ahrar al-Sham, HTS’s former ally. In September 2017, HTS launched a new offensive against Latakia, Hama, and Aleppo, to which Russia and the Syrian regime responded with heavy bombardment in Idlib.

Given that HTS does not pose an existential threat to Damascus, a major offensive against Idlib is not on the immediate agenda of the Syrian regime, whose forces focus on eastern Syria, and specifically, the oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor. Such a reality on the ground enables Turkey to maneuver its interests to influence the Syrian Kurds. After securing Syria’s eastern front, however, the Assad regime and Russia may demand that Turkey either confront HTS militants or clear the way for the regime’s military operation against HTS. More than two million civilians in the Idlib region could flee to Turkey, leading to a nightmare scenario for Ankara. In case Turkey resists fulfilling Russia’s demands, Moscow could turn to the Syrian Kurds to gain the upper hand.

What Does Turkey Want?

Ankara has three major goals in the Idlib operation. First, Turkish observatory missions will be sent to threaten Afrin, a Kurdish town currently held by the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and the military posts will enable Turkey’s encirclement of the town. In March 2017, as part of Turkey’s plan to remove Kurdish forces from the western Euphrates, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan declared a military operation in Afrin after the al-Bab operation, but rescinded his decision when Russia deployed troops there to protect the Kurds. With the Idlib operation, Ankara counts on Moscow’s acquiescence as it pressures the Kurdish YPG. Turkish military sources even claimed that Russia would not object to Turkey’s intervention in Afrin, and therefore, the city would soon be cleared of the YPG. The Turkish military would then turn to the YPG-held city of Manbij as the next target.

Second, Ankara aims to expand its influence on the ground and gain leverage over HTS. Although the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and other Turkey-backed groups experienced significant losses against HTS, Ankara is still hopeful to form an alternative reality even in a small enclave such as Idlib, counting on increasing defections to HTS. The Nour al-Din al-Zinki brigades and Jaysh al-Ahrar, for example, deserted the HTS alliance a few weeks ago. More importantly, HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani has deep concerns about the ongoing defections within the core structure of the group.

Third, Turkey understands that a Russian-Syrian military operation in Idlib could be devastating to hundreds of thousands of civilians, a development that may become even more catastrophic than the fall of Aleppo. In the past two years, Idlib province has received more than half a million internally displaced persons (IDPs) because the region is now one of the few sanctuaries to escape Assad’s wrath. With a population of over two million, Idlib is located near the Turkish border where civilians would flee in the case of a total war against HTS. Such a scenario frightens Ankara, as Turkey is already home to three million refugees and its border cities are extremely overpopulated.

Moreover, Turkey envisions crafting livable spaces in the Idlib region in the mold of Jarablus. It is significant to note that Ankara dedicates remarkable funds to reconstructing the 250 settlements liberated during Operation Euphrates Shield (August 2016-March 2017) in the Jarablus/al-Rai/al-Bab triangle—which is about 772 square miles and close to the Idlib region in northern Syria. As a result of such efforts, 70,000 Syrians have already returned to these settlements, and by the end of 2017, 100,000 more are expected. Turkish reconstruction work also includes health, education, religious services, and civil society building to win the hearts and minds of locals. Yet, some settlements still suffer from high crime rates and exploitation by warlords due to the decentralized nature of Turkey’s military operation. HTS militants in Idlib do not want the Turkish model in these settlements to succeed, as reflected in a social media message of one HTS member: “Life in Jarablus cannot be hidden. Under the guise of democracy and freedoms, adultery and immorality have peaked there. Jarablus is becoming a corrupted town distant from an Islamic environment.”

How Will Turkey Handle Al-Qaeda?

Moments after Turkey’s agreement with HTS over the Idlib operation, some dissident al-Qaeda militants formed a new group, Ansar al-Furqan fi Bilad al-Sham, and declared war on Turkey and FSA. Such tensions indicate Ankara’s increasing burden in dealing with extremists in Idlib. Turkish intelligence operations have led some groups to defect from HTS and join the moderate camp of Syrian rebels. Turkey’s direct military intervention, however, poses risks for Ankara’s ability in the long term, especially because the Turkey-Russia dealing is perceived with great suspicion and has been a cause of major controversy among members of the Syrian opposition.

While harboring strong anti-Turkish sentiment, HTS avoids military confrontations with Ankara. The group welcomes Turkey’s priority of fighting against Syrian Kurds. In this regard, Turkey’s relations with HTS will be a topic of criticism among Kurds, reminiscent of Turkey’s dealings with the so-called Islamic State (IS). Although Turkish forces waged a bloody fight against IS, Ankara was open to negotiations with the group when the Kurdish YPG was a common target for both Turkey and IS. Similarly, Turkey’s long-term interests in Syria would favor HTS’s presence in Idlib in order to check the YPG in Afrin.

The best desired outcome for Turkey, however, is the elimination of al-Qaeda elements within HTS, therefore reducing international pressure for a ground operation in Idlib—which would ultimately hurt all Syrian opposition groups, as well as most civilians. The Turkish government’s major demands from HTS included the following: (1) establishing a civil administration in the city; (2) opening an office for the Syrian Interim Government—an alliance of moderate opposition factions that Turkey supports—in Idlib; (3) handing over control of the Bab al-Hawa border gate; and (4) disbanding the HTS’s structure with an understanding that its fighters may join the ranks of other opposition groups if they are found eligible. The Turkish pro-government media cheerfully reported that HTS accepted all demands except disbanding itself, and thus, Ankara stripped “any legitimacy from the planned international operation,” which uses HTS presence as a pretext to attack Idlib. Furthermore, all armed groups will withdraw and operate outside the city of Idlib, while a police force—named the “Free Police”—like the ones established in the Euphrates Shield regions will operate in their place.

The reality, of course, is more complex. HTS earlier agreed to accept the formation of a civil administration in the city when signing a ceasefire with the Turkey-backed Ahrar al-Sham a couple of months ago. Yet, HTS made it clear that it would agree to host a civil administration in the city by the Syrian Interim Government only if control of police and courts remained in the hands of HTS. The upcoming months will show how the power struggle in the city will shape the trajectory of the events in the larger Idlib region, where more than 20,000 rebels reside. Through its fight against Ahrar in the summer of 2017, HTS gained significant territory and weaponry, and therefore, it is unlikely that the group would yield without resistance. HTS also aims to convince regional countries that the group truly abandoned al-Qaeda and recently dispatched representatives to regional countries, including Turkey.

Will Turkey be able to facilitate HTS’s evolution toward moderation? If not, how will Ankara deal with such an extremist group in a volatile environment? With the help of Qatar, Turkey recently enabled dozens of rebel groups, merged under the umbrella of a Unified National Army (UNA), with the objective of boosting the organizational capacity of the Syrian opposition. Ankara also expects better diplomatic cohesion of the opposition with the UNA structure. Nevertheless, UNA may fail to deter HTS as the opposition is geographically dispersed, fighting in distant patches including Syria’s south. Moreover, Turkey’s willingness to provide strong support to UNA will be very much dependent on post-IS dynamics in Syria as well as Washington’s choices.

The Washington Factor

With the IS capital, Raqqa, now liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the United States will soon face serious questions about its willingness to support the Kurdish YPG in the long run. Despite the Trump Administration’s depiction of the US-YPG partnership as “temporary, transactional, and tactical,” the Syrian Kurds have attracted remarkable sympathy from Pentagon officers to form an enduring and strategic alliance with them. Given the increasing influence of the US military over the White House in shaping the course of events, Turkey has legitimate reasons for remaining skeptical about Washington’s assurances. Moreover, US-Turkey relations have hit a nadir after the recent diplomatic crisis and the suspension of visa services between the two countries.

The first serious test will be about the weaponry the YPG received for the Raqqa operation. Ankara claims that US Secretary of Defense James Mattis gave promises for the return of arms to the United States right after IS’s defeat in Syria. The Islamic State’s total elimination from the Syrian scene, however, appears to be tied to the long-term US strategy in eastern Syria, where the tribal structures are powerful. Most Arab tribes are fearful of YPG dominance in their land, and the Manbij model—where the YPG’s political party, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), and local Arab leadership cooperate—is not easily applicable. The economy in eastern Syria is not simply based on agriculture and basic services like in the Manbij region; instead, natural resources such as hydrocarbon reserves will drive ethnic competition. Thus, Washington’s policy toward the YPG will not only be critical for shaping the future of Syria but also for any Ankara-Moscow deals over Idlib.

Another strategic choice for the Trump Administration will be about the US war on al-Qaeda. Washington’s ending of support for Syrian rebels and the reality of HTS dominance would usher the Syrian regime’s total war on Idlib after securing the eastern front. The United States appears to remain indifferent as it does not want Idlib to become a jihadist factory, issuing warnings to the people of Idlib about “grave consequences” of potential Russian bombing due to “Jolani and his gang.”

The consequences of such destruction, however, may not be in the best interests of the United States since the operation of al-Qaeda and its legitimacy-building mechanism have been different from those of IS, which claims a territorial base for its “caliphate.” In other words, loss of territory may be significant for defeating IS, but it is not a critical factor in containing al-Qaeda militancy. Perhaps the opposite logic is valid in the war against al-Qaeda, whose legitimacy is mostly driven less on territory but more on grievances as well as on attacks in the West and the Arabian Peninsula. Under a scenario of Idlib’s total devastation, Turkey’s borders would be wide open to refugees and Ankara may not be willing to cooperate with the United States on “terrorist infiltration.” More importantly, al-Qaeda would find more recruits in the West as the Islamic State’s power of attraction dwindles.