As published in Al Monitor:
With attention focused on the US-Iran confrontation in the Gulf, Russian President Vladimir Putin is scrambling to prevent a conflict between Turkey and Syria over Idlib, which is already a massive international crisis.
This week the top UN humanitarian official, Mark Lowcock, said Idlib is “a humanitarian disaster unfolding before our eyes,” with 230 civilian deaths, including 81 children, over just the past six weeks, and 330,000 displaced.
Syria and Russia claim their forces are only attacking terrorists such as members of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which expanded its control of Idlib this year. UN Security Council Resolution 2254 allows member states to “prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed” by the Islamic State, the Nusra Front, “and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with” them. The United States and the UN consider HTS a terrorist group because of its Nusra and al-Qaeda associations. Last month, Michael Mulroy, deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, said, “Idlib is essentially the largest collection of al-Qaeda affiliates in the world.”
But Russia and Syria are not just targeting HTS; they are looking to take out all remaining armed opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Many of those groups are backed by Turkey. Idlib’s citizens therefore suffer under the rule of terrorists and armed gangs, while facing heavy and often indiscriminate shelling and bombing by Syrian and Russian forces. The conditions in Idlib are unbearable and heartbreaking, with no end yet in sight.
The United States, preoccupied elsewhere in the region, is leaving Idlib to Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Washington will continue to call for restraint and express alarm over civilian casualties. But as was the case in Aleppo, and unless Syria uses chemical weapons, expect the United States to stay on the sidelines in Idlib.
For now, Putin has Assad’s back
The escalation in Idlib increases the risk of a clash between Turkish and Syrian forces. Idlib has been a powder keg since the Syrian government retook Aleppo in 2016. Putin’s engagement has been essential in keeping Turkish and Syrian forces apart. But this fragile consensus may be eroding.
Russia and Turkey agreed on a demilitarized zone in Idlib in September 2018, allowing Turkey time and space to split the moderates from the terrorists and avoid an all-out battle. This effort proved a bust, as Fehim Tastekin reports, while raising questions about Turkey’s own ties to some of the nefarious groups there.
Syrian forces, backed by Russian air power, resumed operations in Idlib this spring. Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan thought they had a cease-fire June 12 but it never took hold. Putin couldn’t, or wouldn’t, restrain Assad, and Erdogan can’t restrain HTS.
Since then, Syrian forces have shelled two Turkish observation posts, injuring three Turkish soldiers in the last attack. Turkish forces fired back, but in a measured way, to avoid escalation.
An intensified Syrian siege of Idlib could mean tens of thousands, or more, refugees into Turkey, which already hosts approximately 3.5 million displaced Syrians. Putin knows this is an unacceptable cost for Erdogan, who wants for the Syrians in Turkey to return to their country as soon as possible. Despite the risks, Putin’s inclination is to continue support Assad’s assault, and use his personal diplomacy and channels to keep Turkey and Syria from an all-out fight, which is getting more difficult.
“If the regime continues these attacks, we will do what is necessary,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, who called on Russia and Iran, who support Assad, to “fulfill their responsibility.” He added elsewhere that “excuses that the regime doesn’t heed their calls are not acceptable.”
Russia disputed the Turkish account of the recent attacks, blaming Syrian terrorists, rather than the Syrian army, for attacking the outpost.
Walid Moallem, Syrian deputy prime minister and foreign and expatriates minister, told Al-Mayadeen TV on June 20 that while Syria doesn’t seek a military confrontation with Turkey, it also seeks the withdrawal of all Turkish forces from Syria.
Exhausted Syrian army seeks to take the highways
The battle for Idlib has been hard fought. The Syrian army is broken and exhausted, heavily dependent on Russian air power, and even relying on former opposition recruits to compensate for severe manpower shortages in Idlib, as Khaled al-Khateb reports.
“In the battles against the armed opposition in the northern Hama countryside, south of Idlib province, the Syrian regime is recruiting fighters of opposition factions who have reconciled with Damascus in recent years, some from the southern provinces of Daraa, Damascus and Quneitra, and others from Homs province in central Syria,” Khateb reports.
Some Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters have defected or refused to fight after initially joining the Syrian army.
Terrorists and armed opposition groups know Idlib is their last stand. In Aleppo, the armed groups retreated to Idlib. This time there is no way out, except through Turkey, and Erdogan is not inclined to allow safe passage for HTS.
Putin will probably continue to back Assad’s assault on Idlib to secure, at a minimum, the vital M5 and M4 highways which run from Aleppo to the coastal towns of Hama and Latakia, and then maybe hold off on an all-out siege of the city.
This pause, if or when it happens, would allow Putin to pursue his (and Iran’s) preferred endgame, which, as we wrote last week, is “an understanding between Assad and Erdogan that would allow Syrian sovereignty over Idlib and some type of Turkish buffer or guarantees,” and not just in Idlib, but in northeast Syria as well.
Erdogan’s top priority remains those areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which are backed by the United States. The SDF is made up primarily of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units, which Erdogan considers terrorists. The PYD maintains its own lines of communication with the Syrian government, as Amberin Zaman reported. Putin and Iran are also trying to broker these talks. Despite Erdogan’s many threats against the Kurds, the United States has so far succeeded in preventing a Turkish assault.
Eyes on Osaka
While the crisis between the United States and Iran will crowd out most other regional matters this coming week, Idlib, getting far less attention, is already in the urgent column. Idlib will be at or near the top of the agenda when Putin and Erdogan meet at the G-20 meeting in Osaka on June 28-29. If Putin’s endgame is to have a chance, he first needs to prevent further fighting between Syria and Turkey. Ankara and Damascus are circling a conflict neither says it wants, but they need an offramp. The United States and Iran are preoccupied, so it all comes down to Putin’s ability to broker some type of understanding between Erdogan and Assad over Idlib