The Idlib province located in northwest Syria is known as the fortress of the opposition since the start of the Syrian war. The city center of Idlib, which reached a population of 4 million with the internal displacement, was taken over by the opposition in March 2015. Idlib is one of the primary regions most intensely targeted by the regime. At the Astana meeting held on May 4-5, 2017, Turkey, Russia and Iran declared Idlib and its surrounding area the “de-escalation zone.” Upon the frequent violation of the ceasefire by regime forces, Turkey and Russia reached another agreement. However, regime forces, with the help of its supporters, are continuing attacks despite the agreement signed on Sept. 17, 2018 in Sochi, Russia. Regime forces and the invading forces in Syria are conducting attacks against the entire region, without differentiating between armed persons and civilians. They also do not hesitate to use the chemical bombs that have been completely prohibited in international agreements. Even before and after the Tehran Summit, they attacked Idlib as if to threaten Turkey. Civilians died each time.
What’s more, Russia has threat perceptions, especially related to Idlib. There are numerous Caucasus and Central Asia-origin fighters among the groups in Idlib. Russia wants these elements to be eliminated on Syrian soil before they can return to their countries of origin.
It believes the strengthening of Salafi/jihadist movements puts its own internal security at risk, and hence wants to drown such movements before they get near its own territory. Turkey accepts the presence of radicalists and says that they must be fought against. However, it suggests a different method. Because Russia’s method includes the risk of a new wave of migration towards Turkey and radical elements’ infiltration of Turkey. Turkey suggests a method in which the extremists and moderate opposition fighters in Idlib are separated within time, in which the moderate group is increasingly strengthened, and radicalists are weakened. Great efforts were made to achieve this, and progress has been made. However, more time is needed for this method to produce success. Therefore, Turkey wants Idlib to remain as a non-conflict area.
Idlib is Turkey’s security border
In a scenario which Idlib is taken over by the regime, the opposition will have no role in Syria’s future. It is not hard to guess that the next target of the regime, which manages to take control over Idlib, is the Afrin and Euphrates Shield areas. If it were not for the Turkish military in these areas, they would have easily been taken over by the regime. Thus, Idlib is of critical importance for Turkey. If Turkey does not draw a border in Idlib against Russia and the regime, it knows that its own areas will become a target. In this context, Turkey is in a position to prevent an extensive military offensive targeting Idlib through military diplomacy with Russia. As Russia is pressuring Turkey in Idlib through the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and its affiliated groups, it is ignoring Turkey’s efforts in Idlib to eliminate radical groups, and attempting to get Turkey to accept a likely military movement by making Turkey certain offers. Russia and the regime are trying to legitimize a military offensive on Idlib by using the presence of radical elements as an excuse.
Russia’s Syria strategy
Russia has a few priorities in Syria. When Russia intervened in Syria on September 2015, its first aim was to help the Syrian regime survive. There were a few reasons behind Russia’s support to Damascus. This risky move by Russia shifted all balances in Syria and ensured gains on behalf of Moscow beyond all expectations. Now, Syria was not a trump that strengthened Russia’s hand, but directly an area of strategic significance. The most important reason for this is that Russia has secured a naval base in Tartus and an airbase in Latakia for half a century. Following these deals, Russia increased the capacity of both bases. These military bases will make Russia the most powerful actor in the East Mediterranean. Thus, Russia has become an actor that can inject power beyond its borders, as a super power should. In this aspect, Russia’s presence in Syria is helping it become a super power again. Above anything else, Russia wants to maintain this, and this is directly related to Bashar Assad’s regime remaining on its feet.
However, Russia needs to see that an offensive in Idlib would be the end of the Astana process, and completely destroy any chance of a political solution with respect to Syria’s future. In a scenario which the opposition is left landless, the guerilla war will continue in the country, and the chance of forming an encompassing ruling government in Damascus that will reflect the ethnic and sectarian balances of the country will be completely destroyed. Russia will be among those who will suffer the most if this comes to pass. After all, the protection of Idlib, currently inhabited by about 3 million civilians, and the last fortress for opposition groups, is important for a new political formation that will realize a political solution in Syria’s future.
Only a few days ago, Russia and the regime forces carried out bomb attacks in the Morek district of Idlib, where Turkey also has an observation post, and this observation post was ambushed by Syrian troops. This time, the Syrian army placed one tanker battalion against the Morek observation post and made calls via wireless for Turkish troops to evacuate the region. However, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu had announced the Morek base would not be evacuated.
Just as Turkey is continuing to follow a determined attitude with respect to an operation the east of the Euphrates River despite its agreement with the U.S., it is upholding the same firm stance against Russia and the regime’s bombardments targeting Idlib – without differentiating between women and children – without any regard for the Astana and Sochi processes. The military tactics and moves in Idlib against Russia and Syria are aimed at preventing the Assad regime from advancing in Idlib without finding a final solution to the Syria issue. I do not agree with Russia and the U.S. reaching an agreement in Syria against Turkey being described as a disaster scenario in terms of Turkey. First, I do not think the U.S. and Russia can reach an agreement in Syria. Because this agreement will create the perception that the U.S. has completely lost its global and hegemonic power. Let us say that they do reach an agreement. In such a case, Turkey will continue on its path as a powerful country in its region and the world. Have no doubt.