Turkey is expanding its latest military intervention in Syria rapidly, sending more special forces and commandos into Idlib as part of a high-risk effort agreed to with Moscow and Tehran to establish a de-escalation zone in the northwest Syrian province that is mainly controlled by an al-Qaida offshoot.
The intervention is the biggest incursion by the Turks in Syria since last year, when Turkish forces partnered with Free Syrian Army (FSA) militias, once aided by the U.S. but now dependent on Ankara, to clear Islamic State militants, as well as Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), from a stretch along the Turkish border in neighboring Aleppo province.
Analysts say the most recent incursion has several aims, including encircling a Kurdish enclave Turkey does not want the Kurds to unite with other territory they control further east. It marks a deepening of efforts by Moscow, Ankara and Tehran to try to shape an end-game to the long-running Syria conflict, independent of Western priorities and participation.
Turkish officials say the intervention in Idlib is part of a deal reached last month with Russia and Iran to reduce clashes between rebels based in Idlib and the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
For the Turks, the halting of clashes between insurgents, including al-Qaida offshoot Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Syrian regime, reduces the chances of refugee flight towards the Turkish border. More than two million people are estimated to be living in Idlib province, and prior to the agreement to set up a de-escalation zone there, the province was being targeted by Russian and Syrian regime warplanes in a vicious air campaign that killed hundreds of civilians.
Cengiz Tomar, an analyst with the Istanbul-based Marmara University, told a conference in Istanbul last week a key goal for Ankara is “to prevent a new wave of refugees from Syria.”
Damascus has raised objections to the Turkish intervention, denouncing the incursion as a violation of its sovereignty, and on Saturday demanding an “immediate and unconditional withdrawal” of Turkish troops deployed to Idlib alongside FSA fighters militiamen. But the condemnation from President Bashar al-Assad’s government strikes many as a face-saving one.
A senior Turkish lawmaker, who is a member of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party, told the news outlet Al Jazeera the Syrian government’s demand for Turkish troops to withdraw was for domestic Syrian public opinion and should not be taken seriously.
“At the end of the day, foreign troops have entered the Syrian land and this has to be explained to the Syrian public one way or another,” said lawmaker Kani Torun.
No objections from Russia
Russia, a key Assad ally, has raised no objections. On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the de-escalation zones — a total of four across the country— “were conducted in the framework of the Astana talks with the participation of the three guarantor countries, Russia, Turkey and Iran.”
“Cooperation with Russia is one of the key elements of our foreign policy. We are in close coordination on Syria as well,” Turkish Parliament spokesman İsmail Kahraman told reporters on Saturday in in St. Petersburg after a meeting with Russian officials.
The Turkish intervention began overnight Thursday when four convoys of armored vehicles, including tanks, crossed into Idlib near Bab al-Hawa.
On Saturday more convoys moved into position on the Turkish side ready to cross, say FSA commanders.
FSA rebels said the intervention force will probably go up to 40 kilometers inside Idlib province, giving the Turks and their FSA allies control of a large pocket of Syrian territory stretching from Bab al-Hawa to Jarablus city and south to the town of al-Bab, northeast of Aleppo city.
For Syrian Kurds aligned with the YPG, the Turkish incursion into Idlib represents a further threat to their interests and will block them from linking up territory they control along the Turkish border, some of it captured from FSA militias and jihadists.
Afrin, a Kurdish enclave the Turks have periodically bombarded, is potentially in Turkish cross-hairs. Ankara has threatened to expel Kurdish forces based there.
“We have no tolerance for the smallest wrong in Afrin,” Erdogan told reporters Friday while en route to Ankara from a trip in the Balkans.
But the intervention is high-risk for Turkey. There are many moving parts involved in what will be a phased operation, if the Turks are to be successful in pacifying Idlib. A key challenge will be constraining al-Qaida offshoot Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra.
Aron Lund, a Syria specialist at the U.S.-based think tank The Century Foundation, has questioned how Turkey will implement de-escalation.
“The obvious stumbling block is the fact that much of Idlib is under the control of Tahrir al-Sham, which is viewed internationally as a terrorist group,” he said.
So far, HTS has been withdrawing its fighters, allowing the Turks and their allies to move in. The al-Qaida offshoot also provided an escort for the initial Turkish convoys last week, helping the Turks complete an encirclement of Afrin. That has prompted Kurdish accusations of Ankara being in cahoots with the jihadist group.
But it isn't clear HTS has much choice but to comply - to do otherwise would risk the Turks moving against them, according to Yezid Sayigh, an analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center, a policy research group.
He argued even before the Turkish incursion was launched that Ankara’s moves to set up a ‘de-escalation’ zone could pave the way for an offensive against HTS.
An added complication for Turkey may come from a breakaway from HTS, which has sworn allegiance to a son of Osama bin Laden, Hamza.
According to the jihad and terrorism monitoring group the Middle East Media Research Institute, Ansar Al-Furqan Fi Bilad Al-Sham (the Supporters of the Qur'an in Syria) has sworn to target U.S. interests primarily but in statement released on October 10, the breakaway said it is also ready to fight the Turkish army.