ISTANBUL - Thousands of jihadis are set to seek sanctuary in Turkey with Damascus' forces laying siege to Idlib, the last Syrian rebel enclave. With Damascus determined to take control of all of Syria, analysts warn it's only a matter of time before Turkey faces an exodus of not only refugees, but also the arrival of extremist fighters, posing a significant security threat to the country.
Syrian government forces are steadily tightening their grip on Idlib province, the last pocket of the rebel resistance. It's estimated about 3 million Syrians are holed up in the enclave, of which half have fled fighting in other parts of Syria.
"It poses a huge threat, roughly half-a-million refugees are piled at the border in ramshackle refugee camps," said analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners.
"If [Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-] Assad moves north and captures Idlib city, these people will flock to Turkey, and there is no way we cannot accept them. In addition to that, maybe 40,000, maybe 60,000 extremely vicious fundamentalists will mix in with them and enter Turkey, adding to the instability in the border region."
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, meeting in Moscow last week with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, did buy some time. Following the meeting, Assad forces announced a cease-fire following their latest offensive. Local reports, however, claim Erdogan failed to persuade Putin to agree to a complete end to hostilities in Idlib.
While backing rival sides in the Syrian civil war, Erdogan has developed a close relationship with Putin, built partly by cooperating to end the conflict. That cooperation is leading to growing disillusionment toward Turkey among radical Syrian rebel groups.
Last week, Turkish forces used tear gas and water cannons to break up protests by Syrians on Turkey's border. Many protesters chanted anti-Erdogan slogans and burned images of the Turkish president.
Fear of force
Analysts say anger toward Turkey may not be confined to demonstrations. "For the last seven years, the Turkish government has been supporting them [Syrian rebels]. But they have come to the feeling they've been betrayed," said former Turkish general Haldun Solmazturk.
"They will use terror to force the Turkish government to support them again, using bombs, suicide bombings, perhaps some other terrorist attacks."
In 2016, Istanbul suffered a wave of terror attacks by Islamic State, including an assault on the city's main airport, killing 45, and culminating in a shooter opening fire on New Year's Eve revelers at a nightclub.
Turkish security forces have successfully thwarted further attacks and arrested hundreds of jihadis across the country. Analyst Yesilada warns, though, a significant exodus from Idlib poses a security nightmare.
"You cut your beard, and you drop your weapon somewhere, how are you going to distinguish them as jihadis?" Yesilada said.
"Turks don't speak Arabic, none of our officials, police, border control, military, they don't have Arabic-speaking personnel. Unless our spy agency did outstanding work, I would say maybe more than 50%, maybe 75% will make their way to Turkey."
With Turkey already hosting more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees in its main cities, tracking down the jihadis is seen as an incredibly difficult feat.
"It's already difficult, and it will become extremely difficult," said Solmazturk, who now heads the Ankara-based 21st Century Institute research institution . "The main challenge is the environment; it is so challenging. These radical elements can easily escape into the Syrian population. In certain areas within Turkey, the Syrian nationals represent the majority."
Gateway to Europe
A western diplomat responsible for security issues, speaking anonymously, said the jihadi threat posed by an exodus from Idlib would not be confined to Turkey, with the country acting as a gateway to Europe. Some jihadis holed up in Idlib are believed to be European nationals.
Solmazturk suggests the creation of a buffer zone in Idlib, along Turkey's border, to house the refugees. He says that would allow security forces time to process the Syrians.
Analysts point out, however, that Putin insists Ankara must directly negotiate with Damascus on the creation of any buffer or safe zones in Syria. Turkey severed diplomatic relations with Syria at the outset of the civil war.
Turkish security forces are continuing to grapple with the existing Islamic State threat inside Turkey. According to a security source, a major terror attack was recently averted hours before the assault was to be launched.
With analysts warning that Turkey is still paying the economic price of previous attacks, the financial consequences of another wave of terrorism would be severe.
"It would be devastating," Yesilada said. "Tourism took three years to recover from the 2016 spate of attacks. The numbers have recovered, but revenue never did, so revenue is down in dollar terms 15% or 20% per tourist. So another attack, whether it's now or winter, would dash any hope of recovery."
With Syrians continuing to build on the Turkish border and Damascus' forces expected to resume their Idlib offensive, analysts warn time is not on Ankara's side.