The Ticking Time Bomb of Northern Syria

Emboldened with the advances on Syria’s southern front, the Assad regime has begun launching attacks and thus signaling a major offensive on Idlib, the last stronghold of opposition groups in northwestern Syria with an estimated 70,000 rebel fighters. Senior United Nations officials rightly warn of a bloodbath if there were a full-scale war. Idlib’s population has dramatically increased, reaching 3 million in the past two years, including hundreds of thousands of internally displaced people who have nowhere to escape. UN officials also appealed to Turkey to open its borders to refugees if a full-blown regime attack were to take place. Turkey is already home to 3.5 million Syrian refugees, and the Turkish government finds such an open border policy implausible and dangerous, particularly at this time of serious economic troubles. Ankara has long reiterated that Idlib will be Turkey’s red line—preferring a policy of protecting Syrian civilians within northern Syrian zones—and has threatened to retreat from the Astana process with Russia and Iran if Damascus targets the region.

Further complicating the problem is the Syrian Kurds’ recent agreement with Damascus that raised Turkey’s ire: the People’s Protection Units (YPG) has transferred more than a thousand fighters from Raqqa to Aleppo, ostensibly to support the Syrian army’s operations. According to Turkish media reports, the number of YPG fighters joining the Idlib offensive will reach 6,000; as a reward, Damascus will help the Kurds reclaim Afrin, which is currently under Turkish control. Such mobilization may jeopardize the US-Turkey road map agreement over Manbij, which called for transferring YPG forces to the eastern Euphrates.

The Assad regime’s rapprochement with the Syrian Kurds, together with increasingly strained US-Turkey relations, suggest a turbulent road ahead. Turkey’s perception of an imminent security threat and the existential concerns of the Syrian opposition will fuel instability in northern Syria.

The End of the Astana Process?

Aiming to prevent the regime’s offensive in Idlib, Turkey appealed for Russia’s support, emphasizing the de-escalation zones agreement that essentially formed the Astana process in 2017. In the past year, all the de-escalation zones have been forcefully taken under the regime’s control, except for the Idlib region, and thus Ankara has good reason to be skeptical about Russia’s guarantor role. Indeed, Russia’s strategy in northwestern Syria is a balancing act. On the one hand, in order to ease Turkish concerns, Moscow declared that a massive offensive against Idlib is “out of the question.” On the other, Russian officials echo the Assad regime’s discourse that “terrorists” should be defeated once and for all in northwestern Syria.

Turkey is now faced with a daunting task of eradicating jihadists who are operating within its borders.

Russia has many incentives to keep its partnership with Turkey, especially at a time when US-Turkey relations are in peril. Without a green light from Moscow, a full-fledged war by the Syrian army in Idlib is unlikely. Yet, with the help of Syria’s Kurds, the Assad regime looks dedicated to attacking Idlib’s southern and western outskirts where Turkey’s influence is weak. Russia is unlikely to deter the regime’s expansion in Idlib’s western periphery or its gradual push of the rebels eastward—without directly clashing with Turkish forces. Such moves will also test Turkey’s patience and actual red lines.

While the Assad regime perceives all opposition forces as “terrorists,” Russia is especially worried about the radical groups that have recruited homegrown Russian jihadists from the northern Caucasus region who are more open to collaboration with Turkey in the fight against the Nusra Front and al-Qaeda operatives. The very first point of the final statement from the Sochi meeting at the end of July 2018 specifically addressed the joint Russian-Turkish-Iranian pact against the Nusra Front and like-minded groups. By allocating more time to Turkey while increasing pressure on Ankara to eliminate the extremists, Russia would like to test how far Turkey is willing to go in terms of undertaking this risky business.

Having established 12 observation points around the Idlib province de-escalation zone, Turkey is deeply invested. It is no secret that Turkish intelligence facilitated the assassination of a number of al-Qaeda leaders and has been working to unite the moderate opposition under a new platform, the National Liberation Front. Moreover, Turkey has chosen to engage with the most powerful rebel group in Idlib, the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which renounced its earlier ties with al-Qaeda. Turkey also aims to influence the group toward gradual moderation within its ranks. Given that the HTS still contains radical elements, Ankara’s strategy of engagement may backfire. The pragmatic leaders of HTS have cooperated with Turkey against the Kurdish YPG—but not without internal disturbances and infighting. As Turkey increases its pressure to get the group under the National Liberation Front umbrella, the HTS will soon face a crossroads, and this may cause a split. Those who defected from HTS have already established smaller extremist groups. Thus, in addition to its long struggle with Kurdish separatist groups, Turkey is now faced with a daunting task of eradicating jihadists who are operating within its borders; otherwise, Moscow may give a green light to the Assad regime’s major offensive in the near future.

Rapprochement between Damascus and the Syrian Kurds

The Syrian Kurds’ offer to participate in the Idlib offensive is a major gesture to the Assad regime and indicates American acquiescence on YPG-Damascus partnership negotiations. Some US politicians, however, did not hide their uneasiness with the rapprochement of the two parties. For example, Marco Rubio, a prominent Republican senator and member of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, raised concerns about the YPG turning into “an insurgent organization.” To ease American concerns, the Syrian Kurds emphasized their financial troubles, pointing out that US aid recovery has fallen short, and therefore, they were seeking the regime’s help. In particular, the YPG is in need of restoring the hydroelectric Tabqa Dam in the Raqqa governorate. If the parties could build mutual trust, Kurdish officials plan to ask for Damascus’s help for their community’s health and education sectors as well. Looking at the broader picture, the rapprochement was a strategic response to Turkey’s advances in the Afrin and Manbij regions, with support from the United States.

Damascus, in turn, aims to increase its leverage over Syrian Kurdish enclaves. In the city of Qamishli, dubbed “the secret capital of Syria’s Kurds,” posters of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan were recently removed and the name and flag of police units were changed. Kurdish leaders explained such changes by referring to their goal of ensuring that police represent everyone in their ethnically diverse city. The Assad regime would like to revive its earlier strong ties with some Arab tribes in the region. The Syrian Kurds still remember how Damascus offered armed support to major Arab tribes to quell the 2004 Kurdish uprising in Qamishli. Moreover, when the YPG offered higher salaries to Arab locals after capturing oil fields in 2016, the Assad regime conducted its first air bombings on a Kurdish enclave, signaling its displeasure and intent to defend its public image as lord over both Kurds and Arabs.

With strong assurances from Turkey, it is in Washington’s best interest to halt the Syrian Kurds’ close partnership with Damascus.

The future of the Manbij road map signed by the United States and Turkey will also shape the future of Kurdish-Damascus relations. Ankara earlier celebrated the road map as “a turning point in US-Turkey ties.” Yet, with the recent American introduction of punitive measures against Turkey, the road map’s implementation may face difficulties. The Manbij road map included two main components: 1) coordinating patrol activities and forming joint patrols between American and Turkish troops in Manbij, while the gradual transfer of YPG forces to the eastern Euphrates takes place; and 2) after successful implementation of military coordination, establishing an alternative system of local governance to the one currently administrated by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have strong ties with the YPG. Although the local council is composed primarily of Arab leaders, who constitute a majority, Turkey is concerned that in reality, the YPG is calling the shots.

Thus far, the first component of the road map is currently in progress: American and Turkish troops have been working in tandem, and the Manbij Military Council has declared that YPG fighters have left town. The second component, however, is more challenging and will be addressed in the future. Turkey aims to take over the local governance of the groups that are closely working with Ankara. What causes hesitation and doubt on the American side is Turkey’s long-term goal to weaken the SDF, which could cause mayhem not only in Manbij but also in Raqqa. The security architecture in the post-IS period is still fragile as many locals still suffer from a war-torn economy and the lack of public services. Turkey is accused of mobilizing mass protests in Manbij, supporting Harakat al-Qiyam (a local insurgent group targeting the SDF), and assassinating Omar Alloush, who served as a key ambassador between Kurds and Arabs in Raqqa. If ethnic tensions are exacerbated further, IS may rise from the ashes.

If US-Turkey tensions de-escalate, Ankara will likely demand Washington’s help to prevent YPG forces from joining the Assad regime’s ranks for the Idlib offensive. In fact, with strong assurances from Turkey, it is in Washington’s best interest to halt the Syrian Kurds’ close partnership with Damascus.

Washington Cannot Remain Idle

The imminent danger in Idlib is unlikely to be resolved without Washington’s strong diplomatic efforts. For years, Idlib—packed with three million residents—has become the dumping ground for the Syrian war and now serves as the only refuge for the Syrian opposition. For both moral and strategic reasons, the United States cannot ignore the potential consequences of an offensive of a massive scale by the Syrian regime. It may lead to the worst humanitarian disaster in the Syrian scene, even surpassing the most horrible episodes of the past seven years. The mass refugee flow to Turkey and Europe will have far-reaching geopolitical outcomes, aggravating current problems in Mediterranean security.

Given the serious risks, the Trump Administration should not rely on the Astana process, which proved to be ineffective in regard to the protection of civilians. There is no guarantee that Russia’s Idlib policy would be much different than its policy toward southern Syria, where 330,000 people were recently displaced by regime attacks and denied humanitarian aid, and they continue to live under constant fear of retaliation, including torture and sexual abuse. As Washington’s transfer of responsibility to Russia is not a feasible option, the only alternative is strengthening international coordination through the UN Security Council.

For both moral and strategic reasons, the US cannot ignore the potential consequences of an offensive of a massive scale by the Syrian regime.

Serious attention to the fate of civilians in northern Syria is not separable from US counterterrorism strategy against al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The Syrian opposition has 70,000 armed fighters in the Idlib region, and a massive offensive may increase strategic cooperation between the radical fringes and moderate groups in times of self-defense. Worse, civilian populations may easily fall under the control of the most extremist groups. This will foment violence, which will increase anti-American sentiments in the wider region.

Under such conditions, expecting Turkey to deal with the extremist groups is unrealistic and unreasonable. Turkey now faces the most serious economic crisis since 2001; a massive offensive on Idlib will only increase its troubles. Thus, the recent UN request of Turkey to open its borders in case of a refugee influx should be regarded only as an emergency exit strategy. As the refugee issue is much politicized in Turkey, Ankara’s most likely response will be a defensive one by supporting the armed resistance in Syria by all means. Such an outcome would benefit no parties in the conflict. Turkey’s further involvement in the Syrian war may risk spoiling US plans to stabilize northern Syria with SDF structures. Hence, Washington should exercise a proactive diplomacy to thwart Damascus’s plans for the Idlib offensive—before it is too late.

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