Idlib operation in 10 questions

As the Syrian army commenced its awaited Idlib operation, so did Turkey acted both on the diplomatic and military grounds. Due to the conflict between Russia and the US, Ankara sees Idib as a strategic point to strengthen its position and to obtain new leverage for possible operations against the YPG. And yet, this venture of Turkey's government bears some new risks
Tuesday, 16 January 2018 01:27


After the Syrian army recaptured Al-Bukamal and ended the presence of the Islamic State in the western bank of the River Euphrates in mid-November 2017, the expected target was for sure Idlib. Thus, the Tiger Forces, special forces of the Syrian Army, had been deployed to the northern Hama in December 2017. Russia's full support to the operation was clear, given that the Russian President Vladimir Putin had met the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his visit to the Hmeimim air base located in the city of Latakia. Valeri Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, stated on December 27 that their next target after ISIS would be "destroying Tahrir al-Sham (used to call al-Nusra Front), the branch of al-Qaeda in Syria. This showed that the Syrian army would be acting to take the region stretching towards the border of Turkey under its control. The first phase of the operation includes recapturing Abu al-Duhur air base which controls the eastern part of Idlib and the southern part of Aleppo. After taking this air base under control, the Syrian army will have the chance to move towards the central parts of Idlib and towards the border of Turkey.


Leaving aside the region that is under the control of the YPG (People's Protection Units) affiliated with the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party), Idlib comprises the largest area not controlled by the Syrian regime. It is also a region controlled by Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). The average number of the jihadists in the region is estimated to be more than 20 thousand. This number also includes 5 thousand militants of the Turkistan Islamic Party of Uighur al-Qaida origin, and other thousands of militants of non-Syrian origin. These jihadist groups threaten both the northern Hama, and the southern and eastern countryside of Aleppo from their base in Idlib.  

M5 highway connecting the capital Damascus to Aleppo running through Homs and Hama is in the borders of Idlib. This highway, which is a vital point of Syria, has been out of use since 2012. Although the Syrian army uses a side road passing through the town of Ithriyah, this road is not enough to connect the Syrian capital with its economic centre Aleppo. The Syrian army aims to reopen the M5 highway by seizing Idlib.

Both Moscow and Damascus aim to negotiate the future of Syria after eliminating the threat of Al Qaida. The US also has not yet stepped back from its ground that "Asad has no place in Syria's future".

The US and its proxy in Syria, the YPG, had been preparing for an operation against Idlib until Turkey sent reconnaissance units to Idlib for its surveillance posts in September as part of the Astana Talks. For this specific reason, SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces, of which YPG is a founding group) had formed an operation room. Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy of the US government for the global coalition to counter ISIS, accused Turkey alone for the presence of al Qaida in Idlib and said "an international operation had become inevitable", although the US had actively helped al Qaida to seize Idlib in 2015. Although the reconnaissance forces Turkey deployed to the south of Afrin based on Astana Talks prevented an operation of SDF in the area, both Damascus and Moscow do not prefer to leave this area open to a US intervention.


The first reaction of Turkey came from Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, immediately after Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, announced the start of Idlib operation. Erdoğan accused Assad of "state terrorism" this time,  although he noted just a month ago that "the door of negotiation is open" with him. The full speech of Erdoğan underlined that Assad has no place in the future of Syria. The Syrian and Iranian ambassadors in Ankara were summoned on January 9 to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to note the "vexation of Ankara due to Idlib operation". On January 10, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, said the operation is an attack against the "opposition" forces under the guise of attacking HTS, and asked Iran and Russia to halt the operation.

However, the reaction of Turkey is not limited to the diplomatic front. The opposition media argued that Turkey provided arms aid to the jihadist groups to drive away the Syrian army heading towards Abu al-Duhur and to cause a failure of the operation. In addition to this, the Euphrates Shield Operation Forces under the command of Turkey participated in the counter attack of the HTS on January 9. During the operation, the Euphrates Shield Operation Forces also used Panthera type armoured carriers granted by the Turkish government.


Turkey frequently says the operation of the Syrian army is against the 'ceasefire agreement' of Astana Talks. However, the agreement of Astana underlined 'respecting the sovereignty of Syria and supporting anti-terror struggle'. It also noted clearly that 'no region under the control of HTS, considered a terrorist organization like ISIS, may be deemed a de-escalation zone'. Russia had expected that Turkey would separate the armed groups under its control in Idlib from the HTS, while the Syrian army commenced its operation against the ISIS. Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Turkey, said Turkey would live up to its responsibilities in his talk on October 4, 2017.

And yet Turkey had never done that. On top of that, it had been revealed that the reconnaissance forces of Turkey that entered to Idlib in September for a ceasefire surveillance mission had been escorted by an HTS militants convoy.

Although Turkey sees Free Syrian Army related groups as an opposition to the HTS, all these groups act under the leadership of HTS notwithstanding the occasional internal conflicts of them. HTS had secured its domination in Idlib in last July by taking over some strategic regions from the Ahrar al-Sham groups, known as the favoured of Turkey. The domination of HTS in Idlib is such an obvious fact that it cannot be denied.


It is claimed that Turkey's operation in Idlib is likely to cause a new refugee wave. Pro-government media in Turkey argues that between 300 thousand and 2 million refugees are likely to come to Turkey. The ruling AKP government legitimizes its 'sensitivity' for Idlib in the public opinion by using the argument of 'preventing a new refugee wave'.

More Syrians will be forced out of their homes due to Idlib operation. The same also happened when the jihadist groups actively backed by the Turkish government in 2015 seized Idlib. Thousands of people from the Christian, Shiite and Alawite settlements in Idlib had been compelled to flee. Now the domination of the jihadist groups needs to be ended so that these people can return their homes.


Although the AKP government's support to al Qaida emirate is considered a 'reassurance to the Islamic public opinion' or a 'return to a regime change objective', these comments have no truth value. Turkey has settled on the diplomatic gap caused by the conflict between Russia and the US. The US government makes use of the regions seized by the SDF as a leverage against the resignation of Assad, under the guise of fighting against ISIS. In this sense, Syrian talks in Geneva creates a negotiation ground for the US.

Russia, trying to annihilate the negotiation ground of the US, directs attention to the Syrian National Dialogue Congress to be held in Russia's Sochi at the end of January. Russia necessitates the help of Turkish President Erdoğan to integrate some armed opposition groups to the congress to enhance the legitimacy of it. That is why neither Tehran nor Russia directly challenged Turkey's step about Idlib. The Russian Foreign Ministry authorities had such a perspective in their minds when they said "we do not wish to stir yet another conflict with Ankara. However, we may never step back from eliminating HTS."


Hmeimim air base used by Russia in its Idlib operation had been attacked two times, on December 31, 2017, and on January 5. Russia claimed that only 2 soldiers had been killed and 7 aircrafts had been destroyed during the attack. Russian authorities also claim that an unmanned air vehicle (UAV) technology not owned by the armed groups in Syria had been used during the attack. Although it had previously been revealed that ISIS made use of UAVs to drop explosives in its attacks, these attacks had been operated by UAVs controlled within the range of vision. However, in the Khmeimim attacks, the UAVs had 50 kilometres range, carried explosives like RDX that can only be found in state inventories and were able to locate the target by analysing GPS data. Russia argues that such UAV technology and its training can only be provided by a state source. Russia implicitly accused the US of the attack by stating that a Poseidon type aircraft owned by the US had been detected flying over the region on the day of the attack.

Russia had been pointing at the US in its statements regarding the political motives behind the Khmeimim attacks. First Maria Zaharova, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, and then Russian President Putin described these attacks as "attempts to sabotage the Sochi congress." Putin also noted that he talked to Turkish President Erdoğan on the phone and that Russia does not hold Turkey accountable for the attacks. The US has been expressing its objection to the Sochi congress more boldly. The deputy foreign minister of the US, David Satterfield, defined the Sochi congress as an attempt of Russia to limit the issue of Syria's future to its own agenda and said "This is not legitimate. We are not going to legitimize that." Some US-based think-tanks suggest that the US should support Turkey about Idlib. For instance, Institute for the Study of War argues in a report that a victory of Assad against al-Qaida in Idlib would damage the strategic targets of the US, and advises Washington to support Erdoğan for the termination of Idlib operation.


Turkey's involvement in Idlib bears some risks. The operational force of Turkey in Idlib, 500 soldiers against the YPG in Afrin, may become a target if the operation continues. It was claimed that a military convoy of the Turkish armed forces had been caught under a mortar attack on their way to Anadan, Aleppo on October 11.  Ankara neither confirmed nor denied this claim. Allegations regarding the attack came a day after HTS's Idlib attack on January 10.

The Syrian media had blamed Turkey of actively supporting the attack of HTS. Similarly, a military convoy of the Turkish armed forces had been attacked by RPG in Darat Izza, Aleppo two days after the second attack to Khmeimim airbase. Turkey did not blame the YPG, as well as not defining a perpetrator, although Darat Izza is just below Afrin which under YPG's control. It was also revealed that Gerasimov, the chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, had sent a message to his counterpart Hulusi Akar and Turkish Intelligence Office chief Hakan Fidan regarding the UAV attack by unknown perpetrators to the Khmeimim airbase on December 2, 2017, killing 2 Russian soldiers.


Erdoğan said Turkey did not close the doors of negotiation with Damascus only a month before he said Assad has no place in the future of Syria. Erdoğan justified this with Assad's power against the YPG. The Syrian government had been sieging violent attacks to the YPG who had seized half of the fertile farms, and almost all of the oil and natural gas resources of Syria under the pretext of fighting against the YPG. The reason behind Erdoğan's contradicting statements within a month was the Syrian government's Idlib plan in action despite these harsh statements.

The insistence of Erdoğan for being an actor regarding the future of Syria is mostly based on Turkey's plans on the regions controlled by the YPG. Turkey is trying to get some leverage from the US or Russia for possible operations against YPG, because YPG's position in Afrin is being guaranteed by Russia, and by the US in the eastern banks of the River Euphrates and Manbij. Although the US and Russia have conflicts regarding Syria, they both reject Turkey's total military attack against the YPG-controlled areas. The fact that Turkey has intensified its military operations in Afrin following its integration in the Idlib operation, and that Erdoğan uttered threatening remarks like "You will see what we will do within a week" should be noted here.


The Syrian army keeps prevailing against the jihadist groups. The Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad declared boldly on January 13 "Turkey should retreat its forces in Syria." That was a statement that Syria has not dared to make out loud. Turkey's AKP government lacks necessary tools for acting on such a plan given that it had been isolated in the international arena in a time when the US relies solely on the YPG in Syria.    

In addition to this, Turkey cannot risk another conflict with Russia. Taking these into consideration, Turkey's outrage regarding Idlib has some limits. Turkey is sure aware that Russia needs its existence in the Sochi congress. But the question is how far is Turkey aware that its military existence in Syria depends on Russia's decision? Russia has not yet decided about its position regarding the YPG, which has become a leverage for the US. In addition to this, Russia would not amend its policy of gaining time before the Idlib operation comes to a conclusion. By taking part in Idlib operation, Erdoğan wishes to become a powerful actor regarding Syria's future. However, he can lose his present position while venturing for that end.