Political Observation - Idlib: Test for the Turkish Guarantor

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم

Political Observation - Idlib: Test for the Turkish Guarantor

Tensions between Turkey and Russia have escalated due to the latter’s failure to adhere to the outputs of the Astana process and the Sochi agreement. The tension increased further after the forces of Bashar Assad had shelled a Turkish checkpoint, killing eight Turkish soldiers. And despite her retaliation, Turkey found herself facing new rules of engagement.

Turkish forces fortified their presence at existing checkpoints and set up new ones despite the siege imposed on some of them by the forces of the Syrian regime which is desperately attempting to seize control of other parts of Idlib especially now that it has taken control of the two international highways, namely M4 Aleppo – Latakia, and M5 Aleppo – Damascus, spurred by its success in dominating the cities and towns situated along them with hardly any resistance. This led some observers to suspect the presence of a Russo-Turkish agreement on letting the Syrian regime seize control of the two international highways.

What is noteworthy is that the Idlib region has been subject to a host of Russo-Turkish understandings since the Sochi conference of September 2018; it enjoys a security and geographic importance among all the stakeholders of the Syrian file, especially Russia, Turkey and the Syrian regime. The Sochi agreement stipulated establishing a demilitarised zone since the region overlooked the Russian bases in Hmeimim and since Turkey’s interest in the region was evoked by security matters pertinent to the influx of refugees who have turned into an electoral leverage that may damage the AKP and the popularity of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, in addition to aggravating the burden on Turkey’s economy. Turkey is eager to make her presence felt in Idlib to prevent the Kurdish expansion west of the Euphrates, not to mention her eagerness to maintain the trump cards that help her avoid being marginalised by Russia and America or excluded from any international understandings or agreements that may be concluded at her expense.

As for the Syrian regime, the region of Idlib means fulfilling the pledges it has made to its supporters, namely working towards spreading its dominion over the whole country, thus diverting attention away from the economic downturn, regaining control over the transit trade via the M4 and M5 highways and reviving its ailing economy.

The current military conflict in Idlib between the regime backed by Russia and the Syrian opposition backed by Turkey has revealed the frailty of the Astana process and the Sochi understandings on the de-escalation zone. The escalation for its part has revealed that Turkey may possibly be dragged into the Syrian quagmire, which is what America is currently plotting. Despite America’s open support for Turkey’s strikes against the Syrian regime’s positions and despite her aversion to the Russian airstrikes against the civilians, this, however, does not rule out the presence of a host of mutual interests and secret understanding between America and Russia over submerging and depleting Turkey in northern Syria.

Nevertheless, a direct conflict or an open confrontation between Russia and Turkey remains unlikely due to the significant commercial and military ties between them, such as the S400 missile defence system deal, the TurkStream pipeline project and the nuclear plants Russia is building in Turkey, not to mention the geostrategic importance of the Black Sea and Russia’s need to turn Turkey into a political ally rather than an enemy. It seems this is what Erdoğan meant when he said in his speech of 4 February: “There is no need to enter into a struggle with Russia at this stage. We have with her some very significant strategic initiatives.” Nevertheless, Erdoğan stressed Turkey’s intention to resist the Syrian regime and Russia’s attempt to control Idlib; and despite her eagerness to maintain her relationship with Russia due to the mutual interests they share, Turkey did not, however, hesitate to express her anger towards Russia and to threaten the Syrian regime as they violated the Astana process and the Sochi understandings. Hence, after the Syrian regime forces had killed eight of her soldiers, Turkey decided on 3 February to suspend indefinitely the joint patrols she had been conducting with Russia in northeast Syria.

If we took into account the Turkish ultimatum to the Syrian regime to withdraw its troops by the end of February from all the de-escalation zones it has controlled in Idlib, and amid Turkey’s persistence not to withdraw from her besieged checkpoint, coupled with the Russian delegation’s failure in Ankara to achieve any satisfactory results to dissipate Turkish national security concerns or restore the stakeholders commitments to the Sochi understandings, Russia and Turkey are likely to adopt a brinkmanship policy vis-à-vis the Idlib issue. This policy will lead the Russians and the Turks to resort to military escalation to preserve their positions without engaging in military conflict or an open war that would prompt other parties to throw their hats into the ring, such as America and NATO, who have declared their support for the Turkish standpoint without, however, undertaking any steps on the ground.

Nevertheless, and despite the complications of the Syrian file, Erdoğan realises that Russia could not harm him severely but she could facilitate his policy in Syria, or suspend her cooperation, reshuffle the pack and impede his policies; this would only be in respect of the political and security aspects. As for America, she could harm Erdoğan in security, economic and political matters. This is why he is attempting to please Russia and not anger America.

Today Turkey is facing a major challenge in terms of her power and her credibility now that she has placed herself as the guarantor and the official ally of the Syrian opposition, and now that she has presented herself as a regional power, not only in Syria but also in Libya. However, with the recent events in Idlib continuing and escalating, Turkey has found herself compelled to prepare for reaffirming her credibility and power by dispatching huge reinforcements to northern Syria and fortifying each checkpoint with a full battalion. Russia will most probably respond positively to the calls for a ceasefire and order the forces of the Syrian regime to halt their advance, be content with what they have achieved so far, especially after seizing control of the two highways, and pave the way for negotiations that would take into account the reality on the ground, so as not to embarrass Turkey further and compel her to launch a major military operation against them, especially that Erdoğan did urge Russia openly not to impede a Turkish military operation in Idlib. “You are not the side we are dealing with but rather the Syrian regime; and we hope you would not place any obstacles before us” he said. In another statement, Erdoğan said: “We will carry out military operations if necessary.” He even told the Russians bluntly: “The Assad regime does not bat an eyelid without the knowledge of the guarantors, and we will not allow for the situation to go on like this in Idlib.”

The main reason behind the glitches in the Turkish foreign policy, especially in Syria, is the Turkish leadership’s reliance on a Machiavellianism and pragmatism and on the nationalistic aspect. On the other hand, the Turkish leadership has overlooked the doctrinism and firmness which represent the strongest deterrent in the struggle against the rapacious colonial powers. The outcomes of firmness and defiance were evident in Operation Peace Spring which impeded America’s plans to establish a Kurdish pocket and compelled Russia to condition herself with the operation and acquiesce to the Turkish request.

The Muslims, whose unity has been fragmented and their powers scattered by the Kufr powers who harbour hatred towards their Islam, which has in the past led them to the pinnacle of glory and might, hope that Turkey will be led by the offspring of Mohammed al-Fatih and the Sultans who do not fear the blame of anyone for the sake of Allah the Almighty, so that they may restore the dignity, unity and might of this Ummah. And this for Allah the Almighty is not hard.

21 Jumada al-Oolah 1441h
15 February 2020