Despite ramifications, Turkey announces Idlib operation

As Turkish forces prepare to invade the Syrian province of Idlib, the problems they face may become exacerbated.

A Syrian rebel fires at forces loyal to Bashar Assad in Idlib, Syria  (photo credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS)
A Syrian rebel fires at forces loyal to Bashar Assad in Idlib, Syria
(photo credit: STRINGER/ REUTERS)
“Today there is a serious operation in Idlib and it will continue, because we have to extend a hand to our brothers in Idlib,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday.
An operation to enter Syria’s Idlib province, one of the largest areas still controlled by Syrian rebels, would be a major development in the civil war. It is also in line with Turkey’s stated policy over the last year vis-a-vis the situation to its south.
However, it presents many dangers for Ankara. With Russian airpower operating over Idlib and Turkey supporting rebel groups on the ground against other extremist groups, there is an increased risk of civilian casualties and angering Syrians who have welcomed Turkish support in the past.
Idlib province in northwestern Syria has been controlled by a collection of opposition rebel groups for years. In 2012, after protests against Bashar Assad, it was the target of an assault by Syrian regime forces but fell to a collection of rebel groups, including many Islamists, in March 2015. The provincial capital, Idlib city, was home to around 200,000 people, and its countryside has been strongly pro-rebellion since 2011.
Aron Lund, a fellow at the Century Foundation, called the province a “poor, rural and conservative Sunni Arab governorate” in 2016. It has since become the home of the most extreme Islamist rebel groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra (al-Qaida in Syria), Ahrar al-Sham and the more moderate Failaq al-Sham. In July 2017, Nusra, which had renamed itself Hayet Tahrir al-Sham, took over Idlib.
The front lines in northwestern Syria, which consists of low, pretty rolling hills, have been largely stagnant for a year. The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) control a hilly area called Afrin near the Turkish border. To the south is Idlib province, a square of territory about 100 km. on each side. Wrapping around Idlib to the south and east is the Syrian regime that controls Aleppo and a corridor to Afrin.
Further east is an area controlled by Turkey and rebel forces.
The announcement of the operation in Idlib has been months in the making. In May, Idlib was included in one of the four “de-confliction” zones that Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed to create in Syria. In August, it was reported that an Idlib operation would take place. There were also rumors that Turkey sought to target the Kurdish forces in Afrin.
Metin Gurcan at Al-Monitor wrote in July: “Ankara’s offer to Moscow: Give us Afrin for Idlib.”
Hilal Kaplan, writing at the Daily Sabah in August, hinted that plans for Idlib might be modeled on Turkey’s successful intervention near Jarabulus in August 2016 dubbed Euphrates Shield. That offensive was led by Turkey and thousands of rebel fighters who successfully cleared ISIS from the Turkish border and created a safe zone for the rebels. Turkey wrapped up the operation after eight months.
Like Euphrates Shield, an operation in Idlib will both shore up rebel groups and be aimed at the YPG.
“The primary goal seems to be rendering Idlib a de-confliction zone to end the YPG’s terror corridor that targets reaching the Mediterranean,” wrote Kaplan in August. Speaking at an AK Party meeting on Saturday in Afyonkarahisar, Erdogan said something similar.
“Today, a landmark operation is under way in Idlib and this will continue. We will never allow a terrorist corridor along our Syrian border.”
So far, the actual operation in Idlib has not yet begun. Turkish journalist Ragip Soylu wrote on Twitter on Saturday: “Chatter among the Turkish journalists. Turkish forces to enter Idlib, Syria late tonight.”
Other reports claimed to show Turkey’s army removing parts of a wall along the border and with tanks deployed in Hatay province near the border. Anadolu news agency said Turkish troops have not entered Syria “yet.”
Turkish newspaper Daily Sabah said the operation will consist of “Russia backing Idlib operations from air, Turkish soldiers supporting FSA [Free Syrian army, rebels] from inside Turkish border.”
The Russian “support” for the Turkish operation represents a watershed in the Syrian conflict.
Moscow is the main backer of the regime, while Turkey has been the main backer of the rebels. But things have changed in the last year. Turkey has grown closer to Russia, and the Turkish president was recently in Iran for talks. Russia has been bombing Idlib in recent weeks. Usually that bombing would anger Turkey’s Syrian rebel allies.
This puts Turkey in an awkward position of appearing to be on the same side as Russia, and thus on the same side as the Assad regime, which millions of Syrians loath and have fled. Syrian groups may be angered by appearance of cooperation between Russia and Turkey, especially if civilians are killed in Idlib.
Although Turkey wants to work through its rebel allies, the ones it successfully worked with near Kilis and Jarabulus, these groups, such as the Hamza Division, have often proven incapable of making major advances on their own. When the Hamza Division threatened to take Tell Rifat from the Kurds in October 2016, it never even launched an operation.
Bogged down fighting Hayet Tahrir al-Sham jihadists, which these rebel groups whose priority is fighting the Syrian regime have no stomach to fight, could lead to setbacks and serious ramifications for Turkish policy. There are an estimated 2 million civilians in Idlib province.
A Syrian analyst who spoke on condition of anonymity said he hoped Turkey would step back from the operation at the last minute because Turkey could suffer losses in a real conflict with Hayet Tahrir al-Sham.
A round of fighting between Turkey and the jihadists would further complicate an already complex Syrian conflict. Any conflict in Afrin between Turkish forces and the Kurds also would lead to tensions in the east with the US-led coalition that is partnered with the Kurds against Islamic State.