09 September 2019 10:17

Two borders most distant from peace

Idlib is known to be a hot issue again in Turkey, as is the Lebanon-Israel border, on the boil for some, in the countries of the region, not least Lebanon.

Photograph: Hadi Kurt/DHA

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Hediye LEVENT

Idlib is known to be a hot issue again in Turkey, as is the Lebanon-Israel border, on the boil for some, in the countries of the region, not least Lebanon.

It looks as if Turkey will continue to talk for a while longer about Idllib and the countries of the region about the Lebanon-Israel border because both borders have heated up beyond ready resolution, ready to boil over at the slightest development.

Let us start with Idlib.

Following Turkey’s announcement that it was readying for an operation on the east of the Euphrates, Turkey and the USA, having for a good time had a somewhat tumultuous relationship, sat at the negotiating table. It was decided for a safe zone, whose details, mode of application and prospects of being implemented are uncertain, to be created east of the Euphrates. Russia and Damascus, not very keen on either the idea of a safe zone or rapprochement between the US and Turkey in the Syrian theatre, are messaging through Idlib. They have once more stepped up the long continuing Idlib operation. However, as opposed to the previous phases we have witnessed, the Russian-supported Syrian army has for the first time set its sights on gaining control of the M4 and M5 highways that link Damascus to Idlib and Idlib to Mosul. Intense attacks have begun in the rural parts of Idlib where the two highways join and the Syrian army has captured settlements along the route. The fate of Turkey’s one remaining observation point in this region has prompted the question, “What if the operation continues and the other observation points pass into the territory under Syrian military control?”

ERDOĞAN’S SUDDEN MOSCOW VISIT

Erdoğan once more made a sudden visit to Moscow. The Russians announced that the Syrian army would install their forces around the remaining observation point in the region but had no compunctions about stressing that the Syrian army’s operation was legitimate and they would continue to support it. Presumably in honour of the visit, the holding of a further ceasefire in Idlib was announced. Syrian al-Qaeda, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, which controls more than 90% of Idlib, is excluded from the ceasefire because Turkey, in common with Russia, deems this organization to be a terrorist organization. It is hard to comprehend who the ceasefire actually covers with HTS in any case conducting the attacks on the Syrian army and Russia’s military base in Latakia and with it clearly having been excluded from the ceasefire.

In short, in Idlib a ceasefire destined to be broken in a short time has commenced. In fact, just as none of the ceasefires staged until now has succeeded in being permanent, it is also impossible for those staged from now on to succeed. In the final analysis, Idlib is under HTS’s control and it is very difficult for any country to be able to fully control this organization.

Of course, with all this going on, the actions and attacks of the protesters who have amassed on Turkey’s Idlib border and are manifestly angry has come onto Turkey’s agenda. It has provoked a considerable response and, as far as can be gleaned from the responses, there is widespread astonishment at this situation. However, there is nothing astonishing about either the holding of this demonstration or the protestors’ aggressiveness.

Even if it appears to have been toned down compared to the previous week in the wake of Erdoğan’s Moscow visit and the ceasefire announcement, the Syrian army’s Russian-supported operation will continue. For as long as the operation continues, the jihadists in Idlib and the armed groups that have to a large extent been subdued by HTS will be squeezed into even narrower confines. As the squeeze heightens, the build-up on the Turkish border will intensify. Even if a corridor is opened from Idlib to the interior of Syria, this will not suffice to ease pressure on the Turkish border because, as opposed to other regions of Syria, there are 50-60 thousand al-Qaeda militants and their families in Idlib. And there is no great likelihood of this faction, dangerous for Turkey as well, moving to the interior of Syria. So, there is a good likelihood that the images coming from the Idlib border will be more hair-raising in the weeks/months to come. Of course, the position Turkey adopts in this period will also be important. It will either risk conflict and defend the border against this faction or will try to intervene against the FSA groups that the Turkish Armed Forces are currently acting in conjunction with and the radical jihadists. Should Turkey revise its Syria policy in line with the current requirements of the ground and proxy war, other options could certainly emerge.

POTENTIAL DEVELOPMENTS ON THE BORDER NOT THE SOLE RISK FROM TURKEY’S POINT OF VIEW

From Turkey’s point of view, the sole and prime risk is not basically potential developments on the border. The observation points in Idlib and its rural areas are becoming more prone to attack. Turkey holds Syria responsible for each attack on these points, but as the Syrian army’s operation on Idlib continues it is possible that HTS will engage in various initiatives to try to draw Turkey directly into the conflict. When the narrow confines and the rising anger directed at Turkey due to existential concerns are also taken into account, the sole observation point about which Turkey need feel no worry appears to be the observation point which Russia has promised to protect and remains in the region held by the Syrian army. Of course, the issue of the security of the observation points is likely to be one of the factors that will increase dependence on Russia.

The soundness of the safe zone is becoming partially indexed to Idlib. It appears that Russia will continue to make its reaction felt through Idlib as developments progress.

Another border where tension has constantly been on the rise for some time is the Lebanon-Israel border.

There is nothing new about Israel’s enmity towards Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah due to Hezbollah’s relations with Iran. In fact, a potential Israeli attack or the prospect of war is never far from the agenda in Lebanon.

Most recently, Israel sent two drones to the suburbs of Beirut and staged an attack on the Hezbollah forces in Syria. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced that a response would be made to these two recent deeds. Indeed, Hezbollah struck an Israeli-owned military vehicle on the Lebanon-Israel border that UNIFIL had commissioned to protect the ceasefire a few days ago. Israel responded and fired more than forty missiles at a settlement on the Lebanese side of the border. The tension, expected to last for at least several days, curiously died down within a few hours.

A factor detracting from the likelihood of war was the success Hezbollah achieved in the 2006 Lebanon-Israel war and the existence of missiles and technological weapons estimated to number around 150,000 that it has acquired since that time. The shared view of pro- and anti-Hezbollah experts in Lebanon is that Israel will not embark on a war it is not sure of winning. On the other hand, Hezbollah being a partner of the Lebanese army and Lebanese rulers’ insistence that they would consider Israel’s attacks as being conducted against Lebanon appears to have complicated the situation for Israel. Just as there is the risk of a wide-ranging attack on Hezbollah before long turning into a Lebanon-Israel war, considering the already fragile state of the region, there is also the probability of it evolving into bloody chaos taking in several countries.

Also, securing victory for Netanyahu, who is faced with various accusations including corruption, in the approaching elections in Israel appears to have turned into a life and death struggle. One of the claims doing the rounds is that the electoral atmosphere is also said to have been influential in the rapid assuaging of the latest tension on the border and the limited and totally ineffectual response by Israel to Hezbollah’s attack. However, what is certain is that whether Netanyahu wins the election or loses, Israel’s approach as a state to Hezbollah does not appear likely to waver. The security institutions and decision-taking mechanisms perhaps prefer to act more moderately and coolheadedly as opposed to Netanyahu, but the Lebanon-Israel border is primed with tensions that may erupt at any moment.