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Competing interests create bizarre situation in Idlib

Throughout the month of May, Idlib witnessed heavy fighting between Syrian government forces and rebel groups. The latter is made up of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), which controls Idlib, and a wide variety of militant groups that have been brought together by Turkey into the so-called National Liberation Front (NLF).


The rebels, viewing the government attack as a “battle of survival,” have buried their differences and are fighting together, with weapons provided by Turkey. Thus, Ankara is arming militants who are hostile to its own ally, Russia, against the Assad government, which is backed by Moscow. Convoluted regional politics is behind this bizarre situation.


The recent fighting began in early May, when Syrian government forces, supported by Syrian and Russian aircraft, launched an attack in the areas of Hama and Latakia. However, though so far 160 civilians have died and nearly 300,000 have been displaced, these are limited strikes rather than the much-anticipated assault to finally remove the entire rebel presence from Idlib.


Such an attack would have brought a dramatic end to the Russian-Turkish agreement of September 2018, when Russia agreed to hold off an attack on Idlib to give Turkey a chance to separate the “moderate” rebels from the extremists and achieve a peaceful end to the standoff. Turkey had then pleaded that an all-out attack would cause thousands of casualties and push several hundred thousand refugees into Turkey.


Since then, there has been no change on the ground, mainly because Turkey has been pursuing a complicated game-plan of its own: It has been trying to get HTS to join the NLF by projecting this extremist group as a moderate outfit. So far, HTS has refused to accommodate Turkish wishes, thus delaying the resolution of the Idlib situation.


Turkey’s view is that, with HTS joining the NLF, it would have a formidable force under its control. This would help consolidate its own long-term presence in northern Syria and also give it the firepower it needs against the Kurds, who are firmly established in northeastern Syria, where they are protected by a US military presence of about 2,200 soldiers.


What, then, does the current fighting mean? Most observers believe that the Syrian government has been encouraged by Russia to initiate this limited attack to convey two messages to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan: One, that Moscow is getting tired of his procrastination over Idlib, particularly his ties with extremist elements. And, two, to remind Turkey of the importance of its relations with Russia, just as Erdogan is being subjected to US pressure to leave the Russians and rejoin the US alliance.


In Turkey-US ties, two matters are currently in dispute: Ankara’s dissatisfaction with the US patronage extended to the Kurds, who are firming up their presence at the Syria-Turkey border; and Turkey’s decision to obtain the S-400 missile system from Russia.


On the Kurdish question, the US has offered a “safe zone” at the border to be patrolled by Turkish troops. Turkey has found this offer inadequate and unacceptable. But the US is not willing to offer more — it values its presence in this region to monitor and restrict Iranian influence, and hence needs the Kurds to provide sturdy military backing to support its regional interests.

On the question of defense ties with Russia, the US has adopted a tough posture. If the missile deal goes through, Turkey will be excluded from the program to develop the F-35 jet fighter and the subsequent delivery of 100 aircraft. It will also be subjected to US sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. This will dilute Turkey’s continued role in NATO, to which it provides the second-largest army.


Turkey’s public position is to have the missile system and also remain a partner in the Western alliance, but its brinkmanship may end soon. Turkey has to take a final decision on the Russian missile system over the next week or so.


Besides using the stick over Idlib, Russia is also making every effort to soften the blow caused by Turkey’s rupture with the US. In addition to offering the S-400 system, there are indications that Turkey could be made a partner in the joint development of the much-improved S-500 missile system and the Su-57 fifth-generation fighter jet.


To ensure that Turkey remains with the Astana (now Nur-Sultan) alliance, Russian efforts are being backed by Iran. Given the increasing harshness of US sanctions, Tehran has affirmed the importance of its ties with Turkey. To this end, it is playing down their differences in Syria, where Iran opposes the presence of Turkish troops in the north and its efforts to build ties with extremist elements. In the face of US sanctions, Iran has muted its criticism of Turkey on Idlib.


Tehran also rejects Turkish military action against the Kurds in the northeast. Here, it is proposing instead that the Kurds join a united, sovereign Syria in a federal arrangement, with the border being patrolled jointly by Turkey and Syria.


Political players continue to jostle on the Syrian chessboard, making it a quagmire for ordinary Syrians.