Once again, in the last days of February 2020, the political turmoil and escalation raised in Idlib province, a northwestern region of Syria, now a pivotal point of International monitors, terrorist organizations and the immigrants. Idlib is a perilous border province for Turkey’s national security like demographic and refuge issues. In February 2020, at least 34 Turkish soldiers were killed in a treacherous airstrike by the Syrian government forces. After that, Turkey retaliated with the airstrikes and artillery fires at the all known Syrian government positions in Idlib. As a result, this attack threatened a new refugee crisis for Turkey.
Now then, what can Turkey do? To release from this humanitarian calamity, Turkey opened all the border gates with Europe for the insider refugees and migrants for moving forward to Europe. The country said that it would no longer prevent them from crossing into EU. Moreover, here a question may arise that why Turkey open the gates at the border for the migrants? It is said that, in 2016, Turkey and the EU agreed to a deal whereby Brussels would provide billions of euros in aid in exchange for Turkish authorities curbing the flow of migrants into the block, but Ankara has repeatedly accused the EU of not fulfilling promises made.
The Syrian armies recaptured most of the Syrian regions from the terrorists and rebels over the last five years with the assist of adopted Russian power and Iran-backed militia armies. After that, it was high time for ruling authority to conduct an operation in Idlib and its contiguous areas like Hama, Latakia and Aleppo- to liberate those regions from the insurgents and Jihadist groups, who have been trying to overthrow President Assad since 2011. Later on, the regime’s attack created an influx of civilians that has doubled Idlibs population to about three million.
Since 2015, Idlib had controlled by some rival cliques rather than in one hand. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a leading alliance of the jihadist al-Qaeda since 2017, broke off its ties with the al-Qaeda. We skipped to describing much more information on it. However, the UN-designated this group as a terrorist organization and figured out an estimated number of them between 12,000 to 15,000 fighters. In January 2019, with this numerical development, they had been able to capture the enormous areas of Idlib and debarred some rebel fighters to Afrin, which is collocated by the Turkey-backed factions.
Behind the Seen of Regime offensive
In 2017, the sixth round Astana meeting reached in a deal on Idlib province and its vicinity to generate a de-escalation zone to find a political solution of the 9-year Syrian civil war. According to deal, three guarantors like Turkey, Iran, and Russia will be deployed observers at the checkpoints. The principal task of the observer forces is defined as to prevent the occurrence of hostilities between the regime and the opposition as well as to monitor any ceasefire violations. The activities of the observer forces will be coordinated by the Joint Coordination Centre to be established by the three guarantor states.
In October 2017, to monitor the agreement, Turkey deployed its troops in Idlib to observation posts on the opposition side of the front line. Russian troops did the same on the regime side. On the other hand, none stop regime to recapture the large part of eastern Idlib’s countryside. The aftermath of chance, the Syrian government turned its eyes into the Homs province and the Eastern Ghouta near the capital Damascus. Within July 2018, the aforesaid residential areas were devastated by the Syrian regime. Under this circumstance, many civilians and opposition supporters evacuated to Idlib.
Come along with, the regime troops preponderantly had tried to assault on Idlib. However, in September 2018, according to an agreement between Turkey and Russia, they retreated from the attack. The agreement says that it will create a demilitarized zone as mainstream rebel forces required to pull all of its heavy weapons out of the zone, and the Jihadist HTS withdraw them from the zone. Although they pulled out some heavy weapons, the Jihadists remained inside the zone. The treaty also included the strategic M4 and M5 highways that should have been opened free trade. But all of these treaty components are found inside the HTS based demilitarized zone.
In April 2019, in the name of thwarting HTS terrorists from the northern Hama and southern Idlib, Russia launched what they said “a limited offensive,” made a humanitarian crisis by bombing the cities, namely they targeted the terrorists. 500 were killed and 400,000 displaced over the next four months before a ceasefire was declared. A further 900,000 civilians – the vast majority of them women and children – have fled since the current government assault began in December, according to the UN. Some 300,000 have been displaced in February alone. Furthermore, it can be said that when Bashar al-Assad visited the Idlib region last October, he described Idlib as the “centre of chaos and terrorism”. Then he implied that the civil war would end with the defeat of the jihadists in Idlib.
Nevertheless, Turkey won’t accept any other assault in its boundary. Because it concerned about the new influx. Turkey already accepted 3.6 million Syrian refugees. That is why it gave an ultimatum to the Assad regime until the February last, 2019- to reverse their offensive from the Turkish observation points otherwise, Turkey will operate a much bigger military action against the Assad forces. After all, a worse escalation came into sight. At present, a new deal on a ceasefire is going on between Turkey and the Russia-led Assad regime.
The Fate of Idlib: Scenario for Turkey
Murat Yesiltas and Omer Ozkizilcik have discussed four possible scenarios in their research about the political turmoil in Idlib. They have depicted some ingredients for future Idlib. These are:
l Starting the Turkish military operation into Idlib in the aiming of cleansing the HTS.
l After establishing a safe zone near the Turkish border for the displaced people, then approving a Russian-led Syrian regime to assault.
l Labelling HTS activities measurably.
l Freezing the dispute over Idlib and gaining time.
The first attempt most unlikely not conceivable for Turkey as it is engaged with the east of the Euphrates and Manbij after the U.S. withdrawal declaration. So, Turkey does not want to miss this big opportunity to cleanse the PKK/PYD, which is a threat to Turkish national security. Before the withdrawn of the U.S. military camps from this region, Turkey blamed the U.S. for supplying heavy weapons to the terrorist PKK/PYD. Furthermore, Turkey now concentrates on the Aegean, Black and the Mediterranean seas for their national interests. In this case, Turkey’s military intervention in Idlib most likely not gets involved if everything goes under the Sochi accord. But, the recent escalation is now seeing a ceasefire.
The second scenery is much feared and implies in a humanitarian disaster rather than seeking an effective way by approving Russian led-regime operation to eradicate the HTS terrorist inside the humanitarian safe zone near the Turkish border. If it would happen, Turkey will see millions of refugees trying to cross its borders. Social disorder and a catastrophic scenario will be seen inside the Turkish society. Relocating civilians of Idlib to Afrin and northern Aleppo proposal is not getting any chance to reconsider. Because these regions are already overpopulated with the return refugees and displaced people.
The third consequence could be operative if Turkey tries to change the HTS internal and external covers. It can give them an acceptable structure that can reduce Russia’s pressure on them and initiate the transition process in Idlib. Turkey has already worked separating the HTS’s dogmatic and pragmatic wings. However, a question may arise that how much possible for Turkey to change the HTS’s ideology from its core! Some of its international leaders work in this group. We may think that this is a difficult task for Turkey. Besides, HTS believes that Turkey is a secular country and a nation of disbelievers.
The final scene might be a fruitful way for Turkey by postponing all of its operational actions in Idlib to gain much more time. However, the observation points should be there. There is a less risk that HTS can enrich their activities in the safe zone and create an enable de facto HTS government. However, Turkey can return to the battlefield with the new dynamics and will find a new approach to implement the regional problem righteously. For example, if Turkey can cleanse the east of the Euphrates and Manbij, Turkey might relocate the displaced people of Idlib in there. Additionally, Turkey backed-Syrian opposition can back to Idlib from the above-mentioned region to help the Turkish armies and fight in the ground with the HTS.
The author is currently pursuing his PhD in Islamic History at Ataturk University, Turkey.