16 May 2019 17:57

Idlib boiling up on our doorstep

With no Idlib-related solution emerging from the latest Astana summit held with the participation of Russia, Turkey and Iran at the end of April, the Idlib cauldron is starting to boil up once more.

Photograph: Beraa Derwish/AA

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With no Idlib-related solution emerging from the latest Astana summit held with the participation of Russia, Turkey and Iran at the end of April, the Idlib cauldron is starting to boil up once more.

On the one hand, attacks from groups controlling the town that we could call the Syrian Al-Qaida for short have started targeting the Syrian army which is stationed at Russia’s base Hmeymim in Latakia and in the vicinity of the town. On the other, Russia, increasingly pressured by Iran and Damascus which want a military operation to be staged against Idlib, has started to mount crushing airstrikes.

From information provided by local sources, Russia would appear to have hit points and logistic centres of importance for the jihadi groups in its airstrikes. Violent clashes are taking place between the Syrian army and jihadists who are trying to break out from Idlib to Latakia, Hama and Aleppo.

The latest information suggests that the Syrian army has widened its target to include a portion of the conflict-free zones specified under the agreements made in Astana and Sochi. If the air and land attacks targeting this area in which Turkey’s observation points are also located flare up, the presence of the Turkish Armed Forces in this region will also come under threat. In short, the situation is becoming ever riskier for the soldiers at the observation points that Turkey has established by way of extension of its open-ended Syria policy in jihadi-controlled Idlib. And, in fact, press reports speak of Turkey from time to time sending additional support to these observation points and also of these points being targeted in the Syrian army and Russia’s attacks on the town.

With conflict in the field and airstrikes heating up again, Turkey has once more begun to engage in initiatives on the political plane aimed at delaying the operation against Idlib.

Turkey has on several occasions signed the Astana and Sochi declarations with their reference to the need for Syria’s territorial integrity to be preserved. This position has also been stressed in many official pronouncements but, following the stepping up of air and land attacks against Idlib, Defence Minister Hulusi Akar made an announcement calling for the Syrian army to withdraw from areas they had taken from jihadis in recent days. Yes, the wish was for the Syrian army to withdraw from certain areas that are Syrian territory and it had liberated from jihadi occupation!

Then a phone call took place between Erdoğan and Putin. In parallel to the phone call, the presidency and sources close to the government began to make statements voicing “concern felt over the ceasefire violations in Idlib.” The agreements in which Turkey voluntarily assumed heavy responsibilities relating to the jihadi structures there also covered the ceasefire, but the ceasefire was also made subject to a number of conditions. In short, neither the phone call not the statements emanating from Turkey can have had much effect on Russia given that Russia’s crushing airstrikes were continuing at the time this article was penned.

The extreme escalation of tension in Idlib has begun to elicit reactions from the US and EU countries. There is a stress in most of the statements in which such reasons as the “humanitarian situation” are accentuated on the need to halt the operation. Another notable point is the increasing prevalence of reports and interpretations that have begun to appear in the Western press that “the Syrian army may stage a chemical attack on Idlib.” Meanwhile, talk of the use of chemicals in Damascus-Douma the US used to justify striking Syria has turned out to be false. The OPCW report that has somehow failed to attract much world press coverage concludes that the chemical cylinders in Douma were not dropped from the air but were planted there later. Hence, in the eyes of those who have been observing the process in Syria from the outset, the re-touting of the chemical scenario heralds the reappearance of conditions in which the Syrian army has begun to advance, the options/power of groups opposing it is limited and the international community is trying to alter the balance through direct intervention such as airstrikes.

It is for now uncertain if the ongoing ferocious air and land attacks against the environs of Idlib will turn into a large-scale operation targeting Idlib as a whole. However, it can be said that the situation is very serious and it has become difficult for Turkey to freeze the Idlib issue again by tabling various matters with Russia including the S-400 negotiations. In addition to this, Russia’s failure to ease off with the airstrikes despite Turkey’s initiatives is both indicative of a marked decrease in the flexibility Russia is displaying towards Turkey over Idlib and lays bare the extent of Turkey’s dependence on Russia with regard to Syria, not least Idlib.

Thanks to reasons such as the S-400 crisis and relations of alliance with Kurdish formations in the north of Syria, US intervention in the process in Turkey’s favour does not seem particularly likely for the time being.

In any case, with US sanctions against Iran, with which Turkey frequently falls into disagreement over Syria, gradually intensifying, recent comments emanating from Trump have brought the prospect of war back onto the agenda. Among the issues awaiting solution are what Turkey’s policies will be towards Iran, how it will line up and what kind of formula it will find in relation to sanctions against Iran such as the petrol embargo. The likelihood of it getting open support over Idlib from an Iran that is grappling with many problems appears to be remote.

In short, the Idlib cauldron has started to boil up and will not easily simmer down.

An Idlib that has started to boil up on our doorstep may be incendiary for all of us in a period in which a certain crowd is trampling on democracy, the law and justice to secure its own survival such as by rerunning the Istanbul Metropolitan Mayoral elections. What it boils down to is that Idlib is not just a Syrian town, but has since 2011 been one of the most dangerous prongs of Turkey’s Syria policy that has become appended to domestic policy. In a period in which the economic alarm bells are ringing, one cannot but help but feel concern in view of the ever heavier price imposed by engagement in cross-border campaigns, endeavours to pass the ball around between the US and Russia with policies whose purpose and progression are uncertain and the persistent pursuit of incorrect foreign policies.

(Translated by Tim Drayton)