Idlib’s Fate Will Determine Much More Than Syria’s Future

Even though many observers declared the fifth Astana summit as unfruitful; the Turkish, Russian and Iranian leaders reached a tentative understanding in Ankara on a road map to solve the conflict in Idlib. According to which there will be limited military operations of the regime forces with the backing of Russia towards Idlib. There won’t be an all-out offensive as Damascus does not want a long-term cease-fire as Ankara demands. The radical jihadist elements will be removed step by step to prevent a new refugee flow to Turkey.

The M4 and M5 highways, linking Aleppo to Latakia and Hama, will be cleared from the radical elements and secured. Therefore, regime forces will effectively regain control of all main highways. At that point, a buffer zone, about 20 km deep, is going to be set up along the Turkish border across Idlib in which pro-Turkey opposition groups and Turkish observation posts are going to be relocated gradually. It will be a slow, partial retreat in certain pockets, not a total withdrawal at once. Ankara will transfer the observation posts to Russian forces.

Ankara hopes that the limited nature of the military operations will not cause a flow of refugees to her borders. Two humanitarian corridors will be open towards Damascus and Aleppo to let the migrants flee. Some refugees would be taken to the buffer zone. Moreover, the general amnesty declared by Damascus on the eve of the Ankara summit is expected to be helpful to limit the numbers of the refuges.

On the other hand, the planned gradual takeover of Idlib is expected to prevent the scattering of the radical jihadist elements inside to Syria, Turkey or Russia.

A Turkish-Syrian Join Operation Against The Kurds?

Simultaneously, Tehran and Moscow will support Turkey at their struggle to prevent the establishment of a sovereign Kurdish entity at the east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria albeit with conditions. Both Tehran and Moscow are not in favour of the safe zone Ankara is co-creating with Washington since they are against the presence of American forces in Syria. Yet they are against a sole cross border operation by Ankara to set up a larger safe zone. Instead, they proposed a joint operation to the region by Turkish and Turkish backed “Free Syrian Army” from the north and Syrian regime forces from the south. Consequently, to disperse the Kurdish military forces and the political entity Washington and its allies in the region – Israel, Saudi Arabia and UAE – are allegedly trying to set up there.

In that sense, the Syrian Foreign Ministry’s letter to the UN Secretary-General sent on the eve of the Ankara summit was quite encouraging for Ankara. In that letter Damascus identified the Syrian Democratic Forces by the leadership of the YPG is a separatist terror organization under the control of US and Israel.

Harsh Words Against Washington

Ankara has been openly expressing dissatisfaction about its cooperation with Washington in North-east Syria. They want to use the “safe zone” to repel the Kurdish YPG; the Syrian offshoot of the PKK Ankara has fought for decades, away from its border. Yet, Washington does not let Turkey push back the YPG, by extending the borders of the zone. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently said Washington is trying to protect the YPG from Turkey, not vice versa by establishing a safe zone. He proposed that it should be extended to eventually provide homes for 3 million returning Syrian refugees. In that sense, his planned meeting with American President Donald Trump during the UN General Assembly in New York is highly critical.

Speaking before his departure to New York he said “All of our preparations have been completed along the border. We are together with the US in NATO and we have continued our strategic partnership for many years.” He added “But in a place where the United States is not invited, we cannot afford to ignore the support it has given to terrorist organizations. In other words, their support for terrorist organizations such as YPG/PKK is obvious.” Erdogan underlined that Turkey will clear off terrorist organizations with the establishment of a safe zone. Whether alone or in cooperation with Damascus is unknown.

Seeking For The European Support

The details of the road map will be further discussed with the related parties and with France and Germany in New York and during the Syrian summit that will be held between Turkey, Russia, Germany and France in Istanbul next month.

The guarantor states of the Astana process are reportedly giving great importance to get the support of Paris and Berlin as well as the UN. Because they don’t want to introduce the process as a separate anti-Western initiative. On the contrary, they are trying to improve its legitimacy by collaborating with the European powers and the UN. That’s why the constitutional committee that the parties have agreed on will be launched in Geneva, in coordination with the UN.

This is especially important for Turkey since Western governments are concerned that Turkey is getting more dependent on Russia by day to protect her rights in Syria while Ankara’s traditional ties to the West are loosening.

This is the concern of the pro-Western circles in Turkey as well. They harshly criticize Erdogan and pro-Russia circles behind him named as “Eurasians” for pulling Turkey apart from the West and put its interests in jeopardy by allying with Russia, an authoritarian regime.

Astana Process May Pave The Way For New Regional Alliance

Yet there are many conflicting points between Moscow and Ankara on Syria. Despite Moscow’s pressure, for example, Erdogan is still not shaking hands with Bashar al Assad. Therefore, given the tense situation in the region ripe for all kind of provocations, the understanding reached in Ankara is quite shaky. Yet those conditions also dictate a collaboration between the Astana guarantors. Thus the fate of Idlib becomes the key issue to not only to solve the Syrian crises but the continuation of the tripartite alliance in the Middle East.