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Michael Jansen: Turkey’s dubious schemes
September 10, 2018
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Last Friday’s summit that brought together the Russian, Iranian and Turkish presidents did not produce an agreement on how to deal with militant fundamentalists in Syria’s north-western Idlib province. Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani insisted that the militants had to be defeated and uprooted through negotiations or military means while Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for a ceasefire and negotiations with radicals who have repeatedly and flatly rejected surrender.

Erdogan attempted to occupy the high moral ground by arguing that military action against the estimated 30,000 “rebels” who are in fact radicals would kill, maim, and make homeless hundreds of thousands of the 2.9 million civilians who live in Idlib and adjacent areas held by radicals.

Since he is largely to blame for the Syrian war he cannot claim to be taking a moral stand. He is guilty of recruiting defected Syrian army officers to form the Free Syrian Army to fight the Syrian government, establishing the opposition Syrian National Council to take over, and allowing all manner of foreign fighters to cross into Syria from Turkish territory. Erdogan’s dream of restoring Ottoman territory and influence and becoming a 21st century “sultan” produced the conflict in Syria.

Putin and Rouhani also took to the high moral ground by replying that the radicals are holding civilians hostage and using them as human shields. They insisted that Idlib cannot be allowed to continue as the last bastion of the radicals in Syria. The province is dominated by Al Qaeda affiliate Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), its allies, and a collection of other radical factions gathered by Turkey under the umbrella of the Liberation Army.

Turkey has taken advantage of its appointment as monitor of the Idlib “de-confliction,” or ceasefire, zone created a year ago by Moscow, Tehran and Ankara during a meeting in Astana, the Kazakh capital. The original idea was for Turkey to take control of the northwest sector on the Turkish border. Iranian and Syrian army forces would be deployed in the southeast with the Russians forming a buffer in between the two zones.

Unfortunately, Moscow, Tehran and Damascus did not follow through by dividing Idlib into the proposed sectors, leaving Turkey to create a dozen military positions in and around Idlib, with 100 troops at each, an overall deployment of at least 1,200 along with tanks. Turkey has corralled fighters of multiple factions in Idlib and does not want them to leave. Their presence justifies the presence of the Turkish army.

Over the past year Turkey was supposed to separate non-Al-Qaeda groups from Al Qaeda affiliates. Instead, Ankara recruited fighters from both for its client forces, the Liberation Army and Free Syrian Army it uses to occupy Syrian territory for its own purposes on a permanent basis.

The three presidents apparently agreed to a phased strategy for dealing with Idlib witn the aim of keeping civilian casualties at a minimum, a demand put forward by Rouhani while Putin agreed there could be peace deals with some armed groups. Turkey would take the lead for a fixed time. If it failed to meet the expectations of Russia and Iran, they would launch the promised all-out offensive against the armed groups.

Ahead of the summit Erdogan — at long last — branded as “terrorists” Al Qaeda’s Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) and affiliates and offshoots. This means these groups, excluded from the ceasefire and legitimate targets, are to be uprooted.

Turkey seeks to use its Liberation Army — made up of similarly radical fundamentalist fighters — to separate Al-Qaeda-linked factions from the rest while eliminating remnants of Daesh in pockets of territory in Idlib and neighbouring areas.

According to Middle East Eye, Turkey plans to clear HTS from the refugee camp on the Syrian-Turkish border and to guarantee the strategic highways from Damascus to Aleppo and Aleppo to Latakia will be open and that HTS and other armed groups cease attacks on Russia’s air base in Latakia.

Ankara would disarm and evacuate fighters from 12 factions, including HTS, to a buffer zone near the Turkish frontier guarded and monitored by Turkey’s Liberation Army fighters who would also be deployed in Idlib. Ankara has not explained what it would do with thousands of disarmed, radical fundamentalist fighters and their families. While foreign fighters could be sent to their home countries if they agree to accept them, Syrians could not be detained indefinitely in what would become a huge prison camp.

Ankara also seeks to “repatriate” the majority of Syrian refugees living in Turkey to territory occupied by the Turkish army in Afrin and the Jarablus-al-Bab-Azaz triangle.

These areas have already been de facto annexed by Turkey which has installed stooge administrators and provided electricity, trade and communications networks, introduced Turkish in the schools, and changed into Turkish Arabic names of places and streets.

Turkey’s schemes are totally unrealistic, as the saying goes, “pie in the Sky.” HTS, Daesh, and commanders of several of Turkey’s surrogate factions have dismissed the ceasefire and vowed to fight for Idlib. This means Turkey cannot count on at least some of its armed factions. Therefore, it is not clear that Ankara can achieve the tasks it says it will undertake without intervention of Russia and Iran.

Furthermore, Damascus will never accept a Turkish takeover of Idlib which is Syrian sovereign territory. Russia and Iran have pledged to help the government regain all its lost land, including areas seized illegally by Turkey and by the US-backed Kurdish Democratic Forces.

Ankara’s expansionist agenda has complicated the situation. When Turkey invaded and occupied the Kurdish Afrin district north of Idlib and expelled half of its inhabitants, Syrian Kurds vowed to retake Afrin. Some fighters in the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have joined Syrian army troops on the Idlib frontline waiting for the command to launch the expected offensive to clear out all armed groups.

No Syrian government can cede the country’s territory to Turkey. Syrians continue to resent the 1939 Turkish appropriation of the Alexandretta/Iskandarun district of the Ottoman empire which after mass expulsions of Arab Syrians became the Turkish province of Hatay.

In the absence of a Turkish solution, the Syrian army, backed by Russian airpower and pro-Iranian fighters, is likely to mount targeted operations to take out HTS and the radicals as well as those factions sheltering under the Turkish umbrella. Ultimately the latter will have to either seek “reconciliation” with Damascus by handing in their weapons and accepting amnesty or opt for resettlement in Turkey.

The basic flaw in the tripartite partnership of Russia, Iran and Turkey is the two members allied to the government seek to restore Syrian sovereignty while Turkey remains a committed enemy of Damascus. Unable to topple the government, Ankara is determined to grab Syrian territory.

While confronting the challenge posed by the war in Syria, the three governments have been weakened by external and internal pressures. Russia is sanctioned due to its annexation of Crimea and opposition to the pro-Western regime in Ukraine. Iran faces the re-imposition of punitive economic sanctions following the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, devaluation of its currency, and popular protests against rising prices and corruption. Turkey is beset with economic meltdown, the collapse of its currency, and political isolation due to Erdogan’s mass detentions and dismissals of army personnel, civil servants, academics and others.

Of the three Russia is the strongest and is likely to impose its will on the other two as both Iran and Turkey are in great need of the alliance with Russia.


The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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