Turkey faces storm in Syria

Erdogan’s situation in Syria

Three Turkish soldiers were killed on September 11 in a bomb attack in Idlib, the last stronghold of the Turkish-backed and Islamist opposition in northwestern Syria – and Turkey has responded by hitting Kurdish groups supported by the United States in northeastern Syria.

This latest episode highlights Ankara’s predicament in Idlib, where jihadist forces are targeting Turkish troops even as Turkey’s military presence protects them against the Syrian army, as Fehim Tastekin explains.

Think of it as a war within a war: as the decade-long conflict began as an effort to overthrow the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, it has turned into a never-ending war from Turkey with no apparent exit strategy except the one proposed by Russia (see below).

Bottom of a quagmire

Turkey’s role in Syria has fallen into a ten-year quagmire. Assad remains in power, supported by Russia and Iran. Turkey and the United States continue to support forces that want to overthrow Assad, or at least hold out. But the Biden administration is unlikely to embark on regime change. Turkey finds itself increasingly at odds with Washington and Moscow on just about everything.

The factions are getting weirder: Turkey, Russia and Iran make up the so-called “Astana Group” (named after the location of their first meeting) on ​​Syrian diplomacy. The group miraculously united itself despite Russian and Iranian support for the Syrian government and the Turkish opposition.

Russia, given the right time, will likely support the Syrian army to eventually retake the city of Idlib and crush Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), who has the implicit support of Turkey, and other groups of jihadist opposition there.

Syrian military forces have already stepped up their attacks on Idlib recently, and there are fears in the region of massive displacement that could result from an assault, as Khaled Al-Khateb reports from Aleppo.

Meanwhile, the Turkish president Recep Erdogan tried to repel an all-out attack. Turkey is already hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees, putting enormous pressure on its economy.

On the other hand, he wants the United States and the West to end their support for the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the Kurdish group that constitutes the nucleus of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) supported by the United States. United, which opposes the Syrian government. The SDF has been the Syrian partner on the ground in the successful US-led coalition operations against Islamic State in Syria.

Erdogan regards the YPG as a terrorist group, indistinguishable from the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), and at the level of Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

So, as Turkish forces face a growing risk of a potential Russian-backed Syrian aggression on Idlib (more below), as well as rogue actors on September 11, Erdogan continues to lash out at the Syrian Kurds in areas occupied by the Turkish army and pro-Turkish Syrian auxiliary forces.

Metin Gurcan wrote here last month about how Turkey is increasingly using drones for targeted assassinations of Syrian Kurdish leaders, and Amberin Zaman has covered regular Turkish attacks and bombings of Syrian Kurdish targets.

The failed HTS makeover in Idlib

As part of its commitments to the Astana talks, and to preserve what remains of the anti-Assad armed opposition, Turkey has attempted to moderate HTS and encourage it to rebuild its image, including severing ties. with more radical marginal elements, while consolidating other pro-Turkish armed opposition forces under the new Syrian Liberation Front, as reported by Sultan Al-Kanj from Idlib.

Turkey “assumed that the removal by HTS of other jihadists would meet its commitments to Russia to eliminate terrorist groups,” Tastekin said. “Yet HTS strengthened its de facto emirate in Idlib, and dozens of radical groups like Ansar al-Islam, Ansar al-Tawhid, Ansar al-Din, Ajnad al-Kavkaz and the Turkestan Islamic Movement have maintained their presence in Province. Hurras al-Din, the al-Qaeda-inspired faction coordination group, apparently disintegrated, but the factions did not leave the region. was eliminated.”

Head of HTS Abu Mohammed al-Golani participated in a Turkey-backed PR blitz this year, including in February by changing her dresses for a blue designer suit and a lively haircut for an interview with an American journalist, when he said that there had been no torture and that HTS only detained “regime agents”. He also said that HTS’s connection with Al Qaeda was over.

Despite dropping its Al Qaeda affiliation, HTS is still referred to by the United States, the UN Security Council, and Turkey as a terrorist group.

The realities on the ground in Idlib also indicate that HTS and Golani maintain their jihadist good faith. Golani recently praised the presence of foreign fighters in Idlib, saying “these fighters are now part of us.” They are part of the people. They are happy with people and people are happy with them too, ”as Mohammed Hardan reports.

Another downside to the so-called HTS turnaround is the replacement of an obnoxious HTS security force with a new unit called the “moral police,” as Hardan reports here, and the ban of a pro news channel. – opposition, as reported here by Al-Kanj from Idlib. .

Putin and the road to Damascus

Turkey’s failure in Idlib to reopen the M4 motorway and expand the security perimeter around the city, as required by its deal with Russia, has increased Russian pressure on Ankara, which is aware of the decrease. of its options for success in Syria.

“Idlib was certainly a priority on the agenda” when the Russian president Vladimir Poutine welcomed Assad to Moscow on September 14, Tastekin reports. “Putin told the meeting that the main problem in Syria today is the presence of foreign forces without UN authorization or mandate – a reference to Turkey and the United States. “

Erdogan is feeling the heat and might be willing to explore a tentative opening with Damascus, something Putin has been advocating for years.

“Ankara’s willingness to open a channel of communication with Damascus without ending its support for opposition groups reflects its desire for limited collaboration – against the Kurdish desire for autonomy,” writes Tastekin. “Such a contradictory policy is unlikely to impress Damascus.”

As we wrote in January 2020: “Putin is playing the diplomatic game in Syria as if he were playing with other people’s money. One can probably imagine a reason for a three-way negotiation between Russia, Syria and Turkey and the Kurds. He still contemplates a diplomatic breakthrough in the outline of a ceasefire based on an updated version of a 1998 treaty between Syria and Turkey, in which Damascus ended its support and expelled the PKK.

Assad may think the advantage is his and that Turkey could be stuck in the wake of a recent US-Russian diplomatic flurry on Syria.

“The American-Russian dialogue could help stimulate serious negotiations between Damascus and the Kurds, which could in turn diminish the Turkish military presence east of the Euphrates,” concludes Tastekin. “The Biden administration effectively relaxed the Caesar Law sanctions on Syria by neglecting Iranian tankers entering the Syrian port of Tartus and the flow of Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity to Lebanon through Syria. improving the US-Russian dialogue would leave little room for Ankara. “

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