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Paul McLoughlin

Syria Weekly: Few options to end catastrophe in Idlib

Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have fled for the Turkish border [Getty]

Date of publication: 23 February, 2020

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Turkey and Russia are facing off over Idlib, with a last-ditch attempt to save Idlib from disaster at French-brokered crisis talks.
Fresh clashes between Turkey and the Syrian regime broke out this week in Aleppo province, as the deadline nears for Damascus to withdraw its forces from recently re-captured opposition areas or face a Turkish military response.

Fighting centred on the village of Al-Nayrab, outside Saraqeb - a town of strategic significance given that the M4 and M5 intersection runs through it.

Whether this is phase one in Ankara's offensive in northwest Syria is still not clear, but Thursday's fighting is just the latest in a series of tit-for-tat strikes between the two sides in Idlib and Aleppo province.

Russia flexes muscles

Military analysts have told The New Arab that air strikes in Al-Nayrab on Thursday that resulted in the killing of two Turkish soldiers were almost certainly carried out by Russia.

This is based on footage showing a suspected Russian Su-24 carrying out strikes and due to Syrian planes not being active in the area on that day.

Although Russia was previously careful to avoid air strikes near Turkish positions in Idlib, Ankara's deployment of armour in Nayrab to bolster the Syrian National Army rebel forces led to a military response from Moscow, one source said.

Turkey has denied Russia was responsible for the strikes and instead blamed the Syrian regime. Ankara responded by bombarding regime positions from the air, which "neutralised" 50 fighters, destroyed five tanks, two armoured personnel carriers, two pick-up trucks and a howitzer.

The high-cost of Turkey's involvement in northwest Syria so far (15 dead soldiers) and Russia's apparent willingness to back the regime with deadly force means that Ankara will be calculating whether it can afford to carry out its threatened offensive.

Allowing the Syrian regime to take over Idlib is also a scenario it will wish to avoid and would likely lead given that it would push millions more refugees into Turkey.

For Turkey, a diplomatic solution - backed with the threat of military action - appears to be the only available option.

Moscow and Ankara have failed to agree to any solution to end the crisis, meaning that confrontations between the two sides - as witnessed on Thursday - could become more apparent.

"Turkey's denial that Moscow was responsible for the deadly strike tells me that Ankara doesn't want to admit to the country that it is essentially in open hostilities with Russia. It also proves that if there is a large-scale Turkish military effort against Assad in Idlib, it will be countered by Russia," said Sam Hamad, a Scottish-Egyptian writer and activist.


Turkey's isolation following years of tensions with other NATO members means that acting alone against Bashar Al-Assad's regime could be a hugely costly gamble, given that Russia appears ready to support its Syrian ally.

NATO support?

Turkey this week sent a request to the US for Patriot missile batteries to be deployed to southern Turkey, as it builds-up military forces on its border with Syria ready for an offensive.

Ankara is yet to receive a response from Washington and American officials are said to be unwilling to engage directly in Idlib, for fear of antagonising Russia.

With almost a million people - mostly women and children - fleeing the regime offensive towards the Turkish border, a show of backing by NATO for Turkey's bid to create a "safe zone" remains one of the few options available to save northwest Syria from collapse, Hamad said.

"If NATO even threatened to mobilise in support of Turkey in Idlib, I think it's a fair assumption that Russia would either stand-down or accede to Turkish demands for a safe zone in Syria," he added.

Although NATO's social media channels have been visibly supportive of Turkey, few are expecting any stronger actions, while the EU has refused to accept more refugees just as Turkey faces a new influx of Syrians over its border.

The Turkish opposition have been pressing President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to not allow more refugees in, but if the regime pursues its offensive in Idlib then massacres will likely take place on Turkey's border.

"If Turkey absorbs these refugees it will lead to a major crisis. Erdogan will be acutely aware that war could be very bad for the Justice and Development Party, but absorbing even more refugees will be worse - the opposition will slaughter him for that," Hamad added.

Earlier in the week, Erdogan threatened to go ahead with the military campaign in Idlib, despite the set-back at Al-Nayrab.

"We are delivering our final warnings. We have not reached the desired results as yet," Erdogan said. "The operation in Idlib is a matter of time. We could enter [Idlib] suddenly one night."

On Saturday, a French-brokered summit on the Idlib crisis was announced for 5 March, with officials from Turkey, Russia, France and Germany taking part.

The talks could be the last chance to save Idlib from a major regime assault and probably put Turkish military action on hold.

Russia has held Turkey responsible for the collapse of the ceasefire deal - agreed at Sochi in September 2018 - due to the presence of "terrorist" elements in Idlib, notably Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS).

Turkey has insisted that Ankara was making progress in reducing the influence of radical groups in Idlib until the regime's offensive intensified late last year.

Quandry

The status and future of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) - which includes a former Al-Qaeda affiliate - has been a key point of difference between the two countries.

HTS has thousands of fighters under its commands and has taken control of huge swathes of Idlib, after forcing rebel groups out of the area in early 2018, although some have since returned to defend the province from regime attacks.

The International Crisis Group (ICG) recently interviewed HTS leader Abu Mohammed Al-Jolani who promised safety for NGO workers who operate in Idlib and stressed that his organisation had cut links with Al-Qaeda and other transnational jihadist groups.

"Our policy toward NGOs has changed. We are willing to facilitate the work of any organisation that would like to return to work in Idlib, and we pledge non-interference," Jolani told the ICG.

"We will reconcile with any organisation we've had problems with in the past if they are prepared to help the people here. We are stretched thin with the flow of displaced people."

The interview has led to renewed criticism of HTS due to its history of attacks on opposition activists and an obsession with control.

But an analyst from the International Crisis Group said that Jolani's recent pledges to be "hands-off" from the work of civil society should be tested, due to the dire humanitarian situation thousands living under HTS control now face.

"Whether and when HTS in fact foreswore transnational operations is a matter of intense debate, but, according to them, HTS' singular goal today is to fight the Syrian regime," the analyst said.

"They have indicated that they cannot supply services to all the people in Idlib - who are living in dire situation - so there is an attempt to take a more diplomatic approach. They need the NGOS and funding for education, services, the camps, and say they are willing to take less hands towards civil society."

HTS is associated with a radical, brutal and authoritarian brand of Islamism, dealing with any criticism with an iron fist.

It has also come under renewed pressure following recent losses in Idlib, accused of preserving its forces (perhaps as leverage in ceasefire talks or for a final stand in northern Syria) and leaving rebel groups to fight the regime alone.

But Ankara might hope to use Jolani's recent rebranding efforts to show Russia that HTS can be managed, to avoid catastrophe in Idlib, ICG said.

"Turkey sees HTS as a party that would abide by a ceasefire, while Russia sees it as a group that needs to be eradicated," the analyst added.

"I don't think Turkey could take on HTS without a major military confrontation, and that would likely lead to many Turkish losses and possibly asymmetric attacks inside Syria and Turkey which has not happened for a long time."

The ICG said that if Turkish and Russian patrols are enacted, jihadist groups are contained, and major roads kept open, then Idlib might end with a "Gaza situation" and HTS being contained.

For the refugees living in northern Syria without shelter, then a solution to the crisis is now a matter of life and death and the 5 March meeting will likely decide the fate of thousands of Syrians.

Syria Weekly is a new, regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin

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