marched on the Bab al-Hawa border gate in northern Syria on Friday angered over feeling abandoned by Turkey during a Syrian regime offensive against opposition areas.
For weeks hundreds of thousands have been affected by new tensions in northern Syria as Russia and the Iranian-backed Syrian regime seek to take back territory held by Syrian rebels and extremist groups.
These areas are nominally under a Turkish observation zone but some Syrian protesters now think Turkey is abandoning them.
Protesters came by the thousands to the important border crossing that links Turkey
and northern Syria near the Turkish town of Reyhanli. This has been an area when many Syrians have crossed back and forth and is a symbol of Turkey’s increasing role in northern Syria.
It is the gateway to Turkey’s Hatay province for Syrians, and an entryway for food and goods and services for Syrians in Idlib. Idlib is one of the last areas held by Syrian rebels and extremist groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Nearby is Afrin, a once peaceful mostly Kurdish area that was overrun by Syrian rebels and the Turkish army in January 2018, causing 150,000 Kurds to flee.
For those in Idlib, the concern in the last year has been whether the Syrian regime with Russian air power will take over their last remaining areas. After watching southern Syria, Aleppo and other areas fall to the regime, they have become dependent on Turkey.
Turkey began to increasingly intervene in this area in 2017. It established observation points. It signed a deal with Russia in September 2018 to have a kind of ceasefire and withdraw some of the extremists from a buffer area. But Syrian rebel groups have launched drone attacks on a Russian base and the Syrian regime is tired of tolerating areas of its country that are outside its control.
This comes as Turkey and Russia are become closer partners. Already Russia, Turkey and Iran have been working to end the Syrian conflict. But Russia also sold Turkey its S-400 air defense in 2017, finally delivering the first parts this summer. Now the US is seeking to push Turkey out of its F-35 program so Turkish officials were in Moscow to look at Russian warplanes to buy. Syrian protesters gathered in the morning and hot afternoon sun near Bab al-Hawa. Video showed clashes, and shooting in the air could be heard.
Images of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan eating ice cream were part of what angered protesters who feel abandoned. “Thousands of Syrians protesting at the closed border with Turkey now,” tweeted Josie Ensor of The Telegraph. “The situation has been fraught for a while, but pictures this week of Erdogan eating ice cream with Putin while Idlib burns may have made some feel as they’ve sold the opposition out.”
Others on Twitter noted the ice cream diplomacy was not going over well on the ground. The Independent said that images of the two leaders sharing ice cream sparked anger.
The protests will pressure Turkey to do something. Turkey wants the 3,614,108 registered Syrian refugees who it has hosted for years to return home. But most have no where to return to. Turkey threatened an offensive into eastern Syria, and claimed it would return eastern Syria, a partly Kurdish area, to its “true owners,” which has inflamed tensions with the US which is trying to stabilize eastern Syria with the Syrian Democratic Forces. Refugee pressure could also result in more demanding to go to Europe. It’s not entirely clear what Ankara’s overall plan is, because it likely won’t get the full “safe zone” it demands from the US in eastern Syria, and it won’t be able to stop the Syrian regime forever without a Russian deal. That means Moscow has leverage over Turkey to get it to sign on to buy more weapons and increase its economic cooperation in return for holding off the regime. Ankara’s only choice to spurn the Russians would be to work out an agreement with the US and risk conflict in Idlib. For Ankara then it will either get conflict in Idlib or a crises with the US, or sign on to what Moscow wants.
In the long-term for Ankara, the defeat of the last remaining independent Syrian groups would likely be acceptable because then the rest of the Syrians will be totally dependent on Ankara. This would entail removing HTS and the extremists and turning what remains of Idlib into an area like Jarabulus where Turkey and the elements of the Free Syrian Army it backs have control. But that doesn’t leave answers for the tens and hundreds of thousands who appear to be fleeing the Syrian regime offensive.
Syrian regime forces announced a ceasefire on Friday which is likely linked to the protests and Russia. A new Iran-Turkey-Russia meeting will take place in September. But the question is whether on the ground in Idlib Syrians are feeling permanently abandoned and will question their relations with Turkey.