Idlib is the key in Syria

Idlib is the key in Syria

By Fikret Akfırat*

For Türkiye, with the Eastern Mediterranean issue and the elimination of the PKK presence in Syria, relations with the USA, Russia, Iran, and China are locked in Idlib. The situation in Idlib is the most significant issue in Syria that the Astana partners are unable to settle. As a result, the Astana process is slowed down. More importantly, the USA benefits from the favourable atmosphere created by this congestion.

Idlib is the only region in Syria where the Damascus government does not hold sway, apart from the territory occupied by the US-PKK. (Except for Tenef, where a US garrison is stationed in the desert near the Jordanian border.)

Hayat Tahrir Sham (HTS), formerly known as Al Nusra, is in charge of the bulk of Idlib. Aside from HTS, Idlib is home to numerous terrorist organizations. They, or their sympathizers, include ethnic groups of Caucasian and Central Asian descent. There are also TIP members recruited by the CIA from China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Region in this region.

Converging goals

For Russia, eliminating terrorism in Idlib is the top priority, in terms of both preserving Syria’s territorial integrity in general and safeguarding its military assets there. The Russian sites in Hmeymim and Tartus are also threatened by the presence of terrorism in the Idlib region.

Objectively, Türkiye and Syria have been sharing the same goals in the area since 2016. Iran and Russia have the same goal. The Astana process is similarly laid out in this manner. The Syrian government, with the support of Russia, managed to liberate several areas, particularly those near Damascus and Aleppo, from terrorists while Türkiye’s Operation Euphrates Shield, Olive Branch, and Peace Spring demolished the terror corridor plan. In line with the agreements between Türkiye, Iran, and Russia, to which Syria is also a party, the terrorists, who were expelled from these areas, gathered in Idlib.

What did the Idlib Agreements include?

On May 3, 2017, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin met in Sochi and reached the first accord on the situation in Idlib. This agreement marked the establishment of the first de-escalation zone in Syria. Later, in Astana, at meetings attended by officials of Türkiye, Russia and Iran, the Syrian regime and armed opposition groups, the positions of de-escalation zones were agreed upon.

On May 4, 2017, a memorandum of understanding was signed by Türkiye, Iran, and Russia. “To disarm the armed opposition in the region and enable them to engage in the political process in Syria” was the overarching goal of the de-escalation zones and observation stations. Al-Qaeda and HTS were kept out of the agreement.

The establishment of a “disarmament zone” of a 15-20 kilometres, the eviction of terrorist organizations and large-caliber weapons from this area, and the opening of the M4 and M5 highways to traffic by 2019 were all included in the memorandum that Erdogan and Putin signed in Sochi on September 17, 2018.

This agreement had the consent of the Syrian government. These objectives, however, remained on paper.

On the other hand, the regional initiative that drove the United States out was making progress. A meeting between Ali Mamluk, the chief of Syrian Intelligence, who is known to be highly close to Bashar Assad, and Hakan Fidan, the head of Türkiye’s intelligence agency MIT, took place on January 14, 2020. At this meeting, a fundamental agreement was reached that would fundamentally change all developments, not just in Syria but also in the entire region. The delegations of the two countries decided to put a nine-point roadmap into action upon discussing how Türkiye and Syria should work together in the coming months to combat the presence of the “PKK/PYD in the east of the Euphrates.”

Soon after, the USA intervened to stop this crucial development via its assets in Türkiye and Syria. In February 2020, on Syrian territory, groups known to be linked to Türkiye but that actually fulfill the money giver’s order were confronted with Russian military forces. The USA backed this plan. Then, the Syrian army forces and the Turkish Armed Forces engaged in direct combat.

The suddenly escalating tension, which pitted Türkiye and Syria against each other, as well as Russia, ended with Erdogan and Putin’s personal meeting on March 5, 2020, in Moscow. After that meeting, another one was held between the delegations of the two countries. This summit lasted for 5 hours and 40 minutes. Putin and Erdogan made the cease-fire announcement following the summit. During the meeting, an agreement was reached on, called “Additional Protocol to the Memorandum on Stabilization of the Situation in the Idlib De-escalation Zone”. This document states that it had been decided to establish a “safe corridor” that would extend 6 kilometers in both north and south of the M-4 highway and that joint Turkish-Russian patrols would operate within this corridor.

Circumstance provide opportunities to the United States

Türkiye declared in May that it would conduct a cross-border operation against the PKK in northern Syria. While the United States objected Turkish operation, Russia said, “We believe your concerns valid, but…” and cited their prior agreements with Türkiye.  

On October 22, 2019, a new memorandum of understanding has been signed in Sochi following the Peace Spring Operation between Russia and Türkiye. According to this agreement, the Russian military police and Syrian border guards would ensure the expulsion of PKK/YPG elements from Manbij and Tel Rifat, the regions where Türkiye has already announced that it will conduct cross-border operations. However, this could not be achieved, and Türkiye rightly emphasizes that it expects this from the Russian side.

However, it’s important to highlight that Ankara’s Idlib approach prevents Russia and Iran from giving priority to the extermination of PKK in Syria, which is objectively a common goal of the countries in the regional.

Ankara had made a commitment to remove terrorists from the M4 and M5 highways, which are crucial for the Damascus government and Russia, in accordance with the Idlib agreements. This, however, did not occur. Yet, Ankara opposes when the Syrian government wants to accomplish this goal through operations with Russian assistance, on the grounds that it will “cause the migration of asylum seekers to Türkiye.”

But liberating Idlib from terrorism is advantageous to Türkiye, not only because of the delicate balance created with Russia and Iran over Türkiye’s interest east of the Euphrates, but also because it removes the terrorist threat on our border.

The Astana alliance is at a standstill due to the different views of Türkiye, Iran, Syria, and Russia on Idlib, and this complicates Türkiye’s effort to expel the PKK from Syria. In these circumstances, Ankara must change its existing Idlib strategy since it threatens the coherence of the aims set in Astana and gives the US a chance to use the developments against the other countries in the region. Through collaboration with Damascus, Moscow and Tehran to eliminate terrorism in Idlib, it will be possible to reverse the course of events in favour of Türkiye and against the United States with a domino effect.

* Columnist for Turkish daily newspaper Aydınlık

United World International

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April 2024