A few months after a first operation in northern Syria, Turkey is returning to the civil war zone. Ankara wants to use a military presence in West-Aleppo and Idlib to protect rebels against Jihadist attacks, isolate the Syrian PKK branch in Afrin and cement its influence in Syria.
The destruction of the resistance of the „Islamic State“ in the Syrian deserts of Homs and Deir ez-Zor and the loss of areas in Iraq dominated by the terror organization, with the exception of parts of Anbar, means that actors in the region want to start post-IS movements in their favour. After its weakening, the „Islamic State“ has lost its priority as a threat, giving previously the legitimacy to all state and non-state actors in the region to intervene in Syrie. The actors involved in Syria have begun to update their threat and intervention scenarios as part of their new activities.
Recent examples include a possible conflict between the Syrian regime and the Kurdish YPG militia, the Syrian PKK branch, and in Iraq between the Kurdish Autonomy Region, or KRG for short, and the Iraqi central government.
In the case of Turkey, Ankara launched an initiative with the military operation „Euphrates Shield“ against the double threat of YPG and the „Islamic State“ in the northern Syrian province of Aleppo.
While the „Islamic State“ with its terrorist attacks within Turkey represented a national security problem, the presence of IS at the Turkish-Syrian border was harmful, because the Syrian PKK perceived this as a pretext for its further expansionism.
For this reason, the operation „Euphrates Shield“ has contributed both to push the „Islamic State“ from the border area and to cut off the YPG before the occupation of the entire southern border of Turkey with Syria.
Purpose of the Idlib reconnaissance mission: Who and what is the goal?
Currently the Turkish armed forces are successively entering the Syrian province of Idlib, known as a rebel stronghold. Even if the military movement in Idlib is coordinated via the Astana peace talks with Russia and Iran as well as the Turkish army announced at its first entry of the rebel region that the reconnaissance mission serves to „reduce violence“, Turkey will definitely increase its military presence day by day according to its possibilities.
Turkey will increase its military presence from day to day in accordance with the possibilities.
Taking into account the recent statements of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish army positioned in Derrat Izza, without considerable tensions with Hayat Tahrir al-Scham, an organisation with links to the al-Qaida network, to block the YPG movements between the Kurdish canton Afrin and Idlib, as well as to prevent a further conflict between the opposition and the government troops.
After the final break-up of the „Islamic State“, the parties involved in Syria will meet on a final negotiating table, where everyone will put his strongest arguments for the best.
Turkey’s efforts to unite opposition elements of the „Euphrates Shield“ and to establish an integrated opposition arm, as well as the establishment of infrastructure and institutions in the „Euphrates Shield“ region by Turkey and efforts to increase influence in Idlib are not independent manoeuvres.
The Turkish Government’s constructive activities in the „Euphrates Shield“ region in the field of health, education and security, as well as the military bases set up by the Turkish armed forces, show that Turkey is in a position to build up a permanent structure in these regions.
From this point of view, it can be predicted that the Idlib campaign and the associated policy of Turkey will increase Ankara’s influence in northwestern Syria. Turkey is aware that the al-Assad regime and its allies want to drive Turkey out of Aleppo and Idlib. Damascus certainly would take any chance to drive Turkey out of the negotiating table. Similarly, another serious threat is a massive flood of refugees, which could result from such a confrontation. The refugee question is a further argument, why Ankara wants to strengthen its dominance in Idlib with its own soldiers and at the same time increase its influence on local civil elements. In this respect, the HTS militia, one of the strongest groups in the region, is an obstacle to cementing Turkish influence in Idlib.
Instead of getting a new enemy in Ankara, it can be assumed that within HTS there will be breakdowns in the medium term and that the politically vital civilian support base in Idlib will be soothed with a serious shift in favour of the Turkish opposition.
It is a fact that, as long as it is not forced to do so, Turkey is following the principle of non-confrontation with HTS. Ankara previously entered West-Aleppo without conflict with HTS and negotiated with the organization.
Direction of the Turkish Armed Forces in Northwest Syria: Expanding and Establishing
Although not officially confirmed, there is much information indicating that the Turkish army will continue to build more positions from West-Aleppo further east in Anadan, near Idlib City and south of it. The Turkish army seems to want to use the former military bases Ebu Zuhur and Taftanaz for the construction of observations.
Turkey learned two key lessons from the six-year Syrian civil war, which pushes Turkey to take the initiative: The various rebel groups in Idlib must be used to weaken the military capabilities of the Syrian army and its allies in the face of an attack on the opposition regions. However, Turkey does not place much trust in the capabilities of military resistance of the fragmented rebels in Idlib in the event of a fight against Assad’s, Russia’s and Iran’s troops. Therefore, it is to be expected that the Turkish army, in order to reduce the possibility of a joint Syrian-Iranian-Russian attack, will not only establish military positions along the Afrin-Idlib line, but also in central-Idlib and southern-Idlib. Further positions will be added in West Aleppo.
By increasing the influence of the Turkish armed forces in the rebel area with regard to rebel militias and civilian populations, Turkey can offer an environment in which it can weaken or force HTS to moderate and adapt to the rebel mainstream.
The military bases such as Taftanaz, Abu Zuhur, Hamidiye and Vadi el-Deyf, which the Turkish Armed Forces can transform at justifiable cost, can represent a natural area of establishment for Ankara.
The next stage of this development will be the extension of the Turkish military presence to the south of Maraat Numan and the north of Jizr al-Schugur.
In such a scenario, Turkey will be able to respond to all the threats that arise from the Hama-Aleppo-Lattakia triangle against Idlib. At the negotiating table with the regime, the Turkish demands for the region, with the Turkish military on the ground, will have strong cards.
A limited ground operation by the Turkish army in the south of Afrin will ensure that the Idlib region is linked to the „Euphrates Shield“ area via the Azez-Idlib line. Ankara is aiming to capture the city of Tall Rifaat, which is a connecting link. In this case, the YPG-controlled Kurdish canton is encircled by Turkey and its rebel allies like an isolated island from all sides, Turkish troops will then face the Syrian government forces in West-Aleppo, the Idlib area and the „Euphrates Shield“ region.
In all of these scenarios, there are obstacles that both local and international actors can trigger for Turkey. It is very likely that Russia could tolerate interventions of the Syrian army from time to time, so that Turkey does not become even more influential in Idlib and its surroundings. There is also the possibility that the USA could misuse elements of the YPG/PKK to provoke Turkey.
Ankara must be aware that opponents could use HTS to abuse the fight against terrorism in order to attack more moderate rebel groups that tend to be close to Ankara. This would have devastating consequences for the civilian population.
A lasting military positioning in the Idlib region and Aleppo (rural areas), thanks to a decisive Turkish Syrian policy, will be an undesirable consequence for many actors in Syria, in particular the United States. The USA has long been looking for ways to keep the Turks away from increasing their influence in Syria.
Despite the completion of the Rakka operation against the „Islamic State“, the extensive Western arms assistance to the YPG and the instabil situation in Iraq will pose new challenges for Ankara. The measures taken by the Turkish rivals in Idlib and Aleppo will shape Ankara’s options in Idlib.
Like Russia, Turkey can become a permanent player in Syria if it establishes military bases in Idlib to keep opponents at a distance. If Idlib’s connection with Turkey’s Azez-Jarablus-Bab line is successful, Ankara will become a dominant player in north-western Syria. Such a situation would mean either a serious concession by the Assad regime or the decision to risk a conflict with Turkey and thus lose all influence over territories in the future.
The article was written in cooperation with Suriye Gündemi.