Erdogan’s choices limited as Russian-backed Syrian forces increase attacks, weigh final assault on Idlib
Erdogan’s Syrian predicament
Three Turkish soldiers were killed Sept. 11 in a bomb attack in Idlib, the last stronghold of Turkish-backed and Islamist opposition in northwest Syria — and Turkey responded by hitting US-backed Kurdish groups in northeast Syria.
This latest episode “underscores Ankara’s growing predicament in Idlib, where jihadi forces target Turkish troops even as Turkey’s military presence shields them against the Syrian army,” as Fehim Tastekin explains.
Think of it as a war within a war: While the decade-long conflict started as an effort to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, it has devolved into Turkey’s endless war with no seeming exit strategy, except one offered by Russia (see below).
Background of a quagmire
Turkey’s role in Syria has descended into a ten-year quagmire. Assad remains in power, supported by Russia and Iran. Turkey and the US continue to support forces that want to overthrow Assad, or at least hold their ground. But the Biden administration is unlikely to get into the regime change business. Turkey increasingly finds itself at odds with both Washington and Moscow over just about everything.
The factions get odder: Turkey, Russia and Iran compose the so-called “Astana Group” (named after the location of their first meeting) on Syria diplomacy. The group has miraculously hung together despite Russian and Iranian support for the Syrian government and Turkey’s opposition.
Russia, given the right timing, will likely support the Syrian military eventually retaking the city of Idlib and crushing Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which has Turkey’s implicit support, and other jihadist opposition groups there.
Syrian military forces already have intensified attacks on Idlib recently, and there are fears in the region of massive displacement that could result from an assault, as Khaled Al-Khateb reports from Aleppo.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Erdogan has been trying to stave off an all-out attack. Turkey already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, a massive strain on its economy.
On the other hand, he wants the United States and the West to end support for the People’s Protection Units (the YPG), the Kurdish group that makes up the core of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is opposing the Syrian government. The SDF has been the on-the-ground Syrian partner for the successful US-led coalition operations against the Islamic State in Syria.
Erdogan considers the YPG a terrorist group, indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and on a level with Al-Qaeda and Islamic State.
So, while Turkish forces face increasing risk of a potential Russian-backed Syrian assault on Idlib (more below), as well as from rogue actors on Sept. 11, Erdogan keeps lashing out at Syrian Kurds in those areas occupied by the Turkish military and pro-Turkish Syrian proxy forces.
Metin Gurcan wrote here last month about how Turkey is increasingly employing drones for targeted killings of Syrian Kurdish leaders, and Amberin Zaman has covered the regular Turkish attacks and bombings of Syrian Kurdish targets.
The failed HTS makeover in Idlib
As part of its commitments to the Astana talks, and to preserve what remains of the anti-Assad armed opposition, Turkey has tried to moderate HTS and encourage it to rebuild its image, including by severing ties with more radical fringe elements, while consolidating other pro-Turkish armed opposition forces under the new Syrian Liberation Front, as Sultan Al-Kanj reports from Idlib.
Turkey “assumed that HTS’ suppression of other jihadis would fulfill its commitments to Russia to eliminate terrorist groups,” explains Tastekin. “Yet HTS has reinforced its de facto emirate in Idlib, and dozens of radical groups such as Ansar al-Islam, Ansar al-Tawhid, Ansar al-Din, Ajnad al-Kavkaz and the Turkistan Islamic Movement have maintained their presence in the province. Hurras al-Din, the umbrella group of al-Qaeda-inspired factions, has ostensibly disintegrated, but the factions have not left the region. Similarly, HTS’ move to dissolve the Chechen-led Jund al-Sham does not mean the group has been eliminated.”
HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani has been on a Turkish-backed public relations blitz this year, including in February replacing his robes for a designer blue suit and snappy haircut for an interview with a US reporter, when he said there was no torture and HTS detained only “regime agents.” He also said HTS’s connection with Al-Qaeda has ended.
Despite shedding its Al-Qaeda affiliation, HTS is still designated by the US, the UN Security Council and Turkey as a terrorist group.
The realities on the ground in Idlib also point to HTS and Golani keeping up their jihadi bona fides. Golani recently praised the presence of foreign fighters in Idlib, saying that ‘these fighters are now part of us. They are part of the people. They are happy with the people and the people are happy with them, too,’ as Mohammed Hardan reports.
Another shortcoming of the so-called HTS turnaround is the replacement of a reviled HTS security force by a new unit called “moral police,” as Hardan reports here, and banning a pro-opposition news channel, as Al-Kanj reports here from Idlib.
Putin and the Road to Damascus
Turkey’s failure in Idlib to reopen the M4 highway and expand the security perimeter around the city, as called for in its agreement with Russia, has increased Russian pressure on Ankara, which is aware of its dwindling options for success in Syria.
“Idlib was certainly high on the agenda” when Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted Assad in Moscow on Sept. 14, reports Tastekin. “Putin said at the meeting that the main problem in Syria today was the presence of foreign forces without permission or a UN mandate – a reference to Turkey and the United States.”
Erdogan is feeling the heat and may be willing to explore a tentative opening with Damascus, something Putin has been pushing for years.
“Ankara’s willingness to open a communication channel with Damascus without ending its support for opposition groups reflects its desire for limited collaboration — against the Kurdish drive for autonomy,” writes Tastekin. “Such a contradictory policy is unlikely to impress Damascus.”
As we wrote back in January 2020: “Putin plays the diplomatic game in Syria as if he were gambling with other people’s money. One can probably envision a reason for a three-way negotiation among Russia, Syria and Turkey to hammer out some understanding on the Kurds. He still envisions a diplomatic breakthrough along the outlines of a cease-fire based on an updated version of a 1998 treaty between Syria and Turkey, in which Damascus ended its support and expelled the PKK.”
Assad may feel that the advantage is his, and that Turkey could be boxed in as a result of a recent US-Russian diplomatic flurry on Syria.
“US-Russian dialogue might help spur serious negotiations between Damascus and the Kurds, which in turn might diminish the Turkish military presence east of the Euphrates River,” concludes Tastekin. “The Biden administration has effectively relaxed the Caesar Act sanctions on Syria by overlooking Iranian oil tankers entering the Syrian port of Tartus and the flow of Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity to Lebanon via Syria. These signs of improved US-Russian dialogue would leave little room for Ankara.”