The “Mehmetçik”, as we affectionately refer to our young men under arms, remain in harm’s way in Syria’s Idlib Governorate. This ominous standstill was tragically confirmed when eight of them were killed resulting from the artillery fire of the Syrian government forces on Feb. 3.
Many observers who have been closely following the developments in Syria saw nothing surprising in this event. Why then was this allowed to happen? In these days of global alarm over the coronavirus, Turkey seems to be in the throes of a completely different sort of epidemic: disconnect. Under its spell, events are expected to be seen and reacted to in isolation of their backdrop. Again, the loss in Idlib is confined to its physical occurrence, that is who pulled the trigger and who got shot, and then a case is constructed on this simplistic premise, overlooking the context. What will be your take for a commensurate response under these circumstances? Go after the Syrian government forces? Is that really the proper answer?
Turkey’s military presence in that northwestern corner of Syria originally stems from an agreement reached, in Astana, among Turkey, Russia and Iran almost three years ago, in May 2017. This followed the inconclusive efforts at the same venue to hold a general truce between the Syrian government forces and the rebels. The three sponsors adopted a Russian plan establishing four “de-escalation zones” across Syria to shore up the cease-fires already in place locally. The sponsors, acting as guarantors, would establish check-points and monitoring centers around these zones to be staffed by their troops.
On a deeper level, this agreement constituted the tacit admission of the Turkish Government that its ideologically driven policy in Syria failed and that any influence, however limited, on the ground could be exercised only in coordination with the supporters of its adversary (I gave a more detailed account of the process in an earlier article titled “Geopolitics Over Syria” in this newspaper).
For all practical purposes, this tripartite agreement is now remembered as an arrangement essentially about Idlib, as the other three zones were retaken, in the course of 2018, from the rebels by the Syrian government forces backed by Russia and allied militia.
The current, more specific tentative status quo in Idlib is based on a further, bilateral, agreement reached between the Turkish and the Russian Presidents in Sochi, in September 2018, which came on the heels of the failure of a three-way summit in Tehran. This agreement, called “The Memorandum on the Stabilization of the Situation in the Idlib De-escalation Area”, allowed for the establishment of a demilitarized zone, 15-20 kilometers deep, by Turkey (hence its 12 monitoring posts), which in turn undertook to disarm and remove from the zone all radical terrorist groups by 10 October. The Memorandum also declared that the routes M4 (Aleppo-Latakia) and M5 (Aleppo-Hama) will be restored by the end of 2018.
Matters did not turn out to be along these lines. The U.S. President’s sudden decision in early 2019 to soon withdraw his troops from Syria caught the three guarantors by surprise. They were now faced with the imminent void that this withdrawal would produce in territories controlled by the SDF, which is dominated by the Kurdish YPG, hitherto with U.S. backing. The Hay’et Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), the previously Al-Qaeda affiliated terrorist militia, was also energized on its own account by this potential shift of lines in the north of the country and swiftly moved to seize control over most of Idlib. From this point on, Turkey’s enforcement of the demilitarized zone proved to be an elusive task, let alone the opening of the M4 and M5 routes. As the year progressed, the HTS expanded and consolidated its control in the province.
Although the Sochi agreement was instrumental in avoiding a full-scale military onslaught by the Syrian regime into the area which would potentially trigger another massive refugee flow towards Turkey, the increasingly precarious situation in Idlib gradually transformed into a time-bomb, only awaiting to be set. In the process, the Syrian Government alternated between targeted, limited operations and cease-fire, all along making inroads into the militarily more significant sections of the Governorate. However, by the year’s end, it became clear that Turkey’s observation outposts were increasingly becoming indirect (or perhaps direct) targets in the cross-fire. The Syrian forces in effect reached the areas of some of these outposts. These developments caused the Turkish and the Russian leaders to meet or communicate numerous times to prevent fallout.
Subsequently, the Syrian operations which began in November 2019 intensified in the two months that followed. The entire southeast of Idlib in the Ma’arrat al-Nu’man countryside is already under the Syrian Government’s control. Two Turkish outposts are now behind the Syrian forces’ lines. The Syrian forces were in the striking distance of Saraqib, the junction point of the M4 and M5 highways, around which three other Turkish outposts are located, when the Turkish military personnel came under deadly fire on Monday. Latest reports from the area indicate that the highway junction is already in the government forces’ control, which constitutes a strategic gain.
This progression of events clearly illustrates that the circumstances which three years ago induced both Russia and Iran on the one hand and Turkey on the other to chart a jointly coordinated scaling down of hostilities have transpired. The relevance of the Sochi Memorandum eroded not only because the parties were unimpressed by each other’s performance, but also -and perhaps more importantly- because the shifting realities on the ground no longer corresponded to the need to scale down military action.
The war is all but won by the Syrian regime, backed by Russia and Iran. For them, Idlib represents not only a residue of Syria’s sovereign territory, but also the remainder of all armed rebellion combined. Observers estimate that around thirty-five thousand armed militants who have lost their battles elsewhere in Syria were transferred to Idlib. This means, from the outset, Russia and Syria saw Idlib not merely as another de-escalation zone, but as the dumping ground for the enemy’s discharge. At the time, the Turkish leadership may have agreed to counter-balance the recognition of its operational priorities elsewhere in Syria’s north and to diminish the specter of yet another refugee inflow by assuming a “mission impossible” in Idlib, but the Sochi tools now look outdated anyway.
The Turkish President has declared the remainder of February as the time frame for the Syrian forces to retreat behind Turkey’s observation posts. As the Syrian troops are advancing notwithstanding, the time limit he set may well prove to be the more practical aspect of his notice, allowing room for communication. Fiery words seem mainly intended for the public. On Russia’s part, official statements holding Turkey responsible for not communicating its movements in the area in fact confirm its coordinated position with Syria concerning the Feb. 3 attack. These, taken together, mean Turkey and Russia will soon sit down to approximate their respective de-escalation roles in the light of the Syrian forces’ advance.
The Turkish military outposts were never an end in themselves. And, as far as Turkey’s national interests are concerned, it does not have a stake in the fight between the Syrian regime and the diverse radical and terrorist militia groups. It does however have a huge stake in Syria’s stability and territorial integrity. The immediate priority for Turkey is and should remain to help accommodate the uprooted Syrians in Idlib, within Syria, in coordination with the Russian and the Syrian governments, and within a wide international framework. And, the whole issue should not be allowed to become yet another U.S.-Russia tug-of-war.
Şafak Göktürk is a retired Turkish diplomat and is 62 years old. During his career (1979-2019), he held numerous positions including those of First Secretary in Athens, Deputy Chief of Mission in Tehran, Consul General in Frankfurt, Deputy Permanent Representative to the UN in New York, Deputy Director General for the Middle East, Director General for Policy Planning and Ambassador to Egypt, Singapore and Norway. He is married with two children and lives in Ankara.