The story so far: Recent advances by Syrian government forces in Idlib , the last major rebel-held territory in the war-torn country, have triggered a massive displacement besides raising the possibility of a wider conflict with neighbouring Turkey. The Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad is backed by Russia and Iran in the operation to recapture Idlib, while some rebel factions within the province get support from Turkey. Ankara’s protests have also threatened to disrupt the delicate Turkish-Russian cooperation, which had gained traction in recent years. However, despite Turkey’s protests and mounting international concerns, the Syrian government seems determined to press ahead with the operation.
Why is Idlib strategically important?
The province in northwestern Syria that borders Turkey fell into rebel hands in 2015 at the height of the Syrian civil war. The Assad regime at that time was on the verge of defeat. Rebels and jihadists had captured huge swathes of the country from the regime, including parts of Aleppo, Hama, Homs, the outskirts of Damascus, the capital, and several towns in the south near the Jordan border. But since the arrival of the Russians in September 2015, the regime forces have recaptured almost all of these territories from the rebels. The Kurdish region in northern Syria is run by an autonomous government but the Kurdish rebels, under attack by Turkish forces and pro-Turkish rebels, recently bought peace with Damascus. So in effect, Idlib is the last rebel stronghold, which is also the seat of the Syrian Salvation Government, the rebel administration that claims to represent the whole of Syria. If the government forces recapture Idlib, the Syrian civil war would practically be over, handing final victory to Mr. Assad. With Idlib under control, the regime can also take over, or come close to taking over, the 130-km border the province shares with Turkey. The government will also have control over the key highways that run through Idlib connecting Aleppo, which before the civil war was the commercial capital of Syria, to Damascus. The government version is that it wants to “liberate” Idlib from terrorists.
Who controls Idlib?
There have been several rival rebel and jihadist factions present in Idlib ever since it fell from government control. The dominant group among them is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) whose roots go back to al-Qaeda’s Syria branch. The group is commanded by Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, who was originally sent to Syria in the early years of the civil war by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the then chief of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), to establish an al-Qaeda branch in Syria. Joulani set up Jabhat al-Nusra, which emerged as the most ferocious jihadist group in the Syrian theatre. When Baghdadi announced the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Joulani broke links with him and continued to command the Nusra Front, which remained the official Qaeda unit. Al-Nusra later rechristened itself a few times to shed the al-Qaeda tag and operate as a Syrian nationalist front. In January 2017, the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (another name for al-Nusra) and a few other Salafi-jihadist groups merged to create the HTS. The group has implemented a strict Sharia code in Idlib and has been ruling the province through fear and force ever since. Though the HTS has renounced al-Qaeda ties, it is still widely seen as the Syrian front of the transnational jihadist group. The Free Syrian Army and other pro-Turkish rebel groups are also part of the alternative government in Idlib, in an uneasy alliance with the HTS.
Why is Turkey protesting?
There are largely two aspects to Turkey’s strong opposition to the Syrian government’s bid to take Idlib. First, the humanitarian angle. Turkey already hosts more than three million Syrian refugees. It always feared that an attack on Idlib would trigger another refugee exodus towards its borders. The UN estimates that about one million people have already been displaced in Idlib over the past three months. Turkey has now shut its border with the province. But the pressure on Turkey will mount to open the border if more and more displaced people move towards it. Ankara does not want that situation to arise. The second is strategic. Turkey has made it clear that it wants the Syria-Turkish border to be controlled by pro-Turkish rebels, not by the Syrian government, nor by the Syrian Kurds. It had launched a few military offensives in the past to carve out buffer zones on the border. If the Syrian government recaptures Idlib, it will alter the balance of power in the border region, giving an upper hand to the Syrians, and of course, the Russians. The pro-Turkish rebels will be weakened, which means Turkey’s ability to manoeuvre in the Syrian conflict will be enfeebled. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan wants to prevent such an outcome.
What is Putin’s game plan?
Russian President Vladimir Putin, the main backer of the Syrian regime, has always maintained that his single most priority in the Syrian civil war is to help the government win the war. The Russians had taken tactical retreats in the past, like the de-escalation agreement they reached with Turkey to reduce violence in Idlib in 2017 or the pact reached between the two sides to neutralise Kurdish rebels in northern Syria. But Mr. Putin, it seems, never backed off from recapturing Idlib, and seal off the civil war. With the focus of the United States turning towards domestic issues in an election year, Mr. Putin and Mr. Assad have a window of one year to achieve this goal. This explains the timing of the attack. Turkey’s protests were predictable. But the question is whether Mr. Erdoğan has the wherewithal to stave off the Russians within Syria. Even if Turkey makes a limited intervention along with the rebels, it may be able to delay the Syrian-Russian advances, not deter them. And if Turkey launches a full-scale war, the consequences would be disastrous for all sides.