Idlib: Raising the Stakes to What End?

(Co-authored with Yusuf Buluç)[i]

February 20, 2020

Ten days ago, President Putin had a telephone conversation with President Erdogan at Turkish side’s initiative. A statement by the Kremlin said that the two leaders noted the importance of the full implementation of the existing Russian-Turkish agreements, including the Sochi Memorandum of September 17, 2018 and additional contacts between the relevant government agencies were planned for these purposes.

A few days later Presidents Erdoğan and Trump had a phone call. “The President expressed concern over the violence in Idlib, Syria and thanked President Erdogan for Turkey’s efforts to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe,” White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere said in a statement. “President Trump also reiterated that continued foreign interference in Libya would only serve to worsen the situation,” he added, a discouraging reference to Ankara’s support to the Government of National Accord (GNA), led by Fayez al-Sarraj.

As agreed by Presidents Putin and Erdoğan, a Russian delegation has visited Ankara and a Turkish delegation has been to Moscow. Foreign Ministers Lavrov and Çavuşoğlu have met on the margins of the Munich Security Conference. And, U.S. special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey has come to Ankara and surprised everyone by expressing support for Ankara’s “legitimate interests in Syria and in Idlib”. However, as Minister Lavrov said yesterday, there has been no progress in containing the situation.

The UN has said that since December 1, some 900,000 people have been uprooted by violence. These people are heading towards the Turkish border and Turkey is already home to millions of Syrian refugees. The West is constantly underlining the need to avoid another humanitarian disaster essentially because this may trigger new waves of refugees to Europe at a time when the threat of a coronavirus pandemic and strict travel restrictions are high on world’s agenda.

Under the agreement reached in May 2017 by Russia, Iran and Turkey in Astana which called for the cessation of hostilities, Turkey has twelve “observation posts” in Idlib. This much the Turkish public knows. What it does not know exactly is the number of troops deployed in these posts.

In its conflict alert titled “The Eleventh Hour for Idlib, Syria’s Last Rebel Bastion” of February 6, the International Crisis Group reported that Turkey “has around 12,000 troops deployed in twelve outposts in Idlib province and its immediate surroundings. An offensive that would precipitate a new wave of refugees, possibly with fleeing jihadists mixed in, would destabilize Turkish-controlled areas north of Aleppo or, worse in Ankara’s eyes, Turkish territory, where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan already struggles with public discontent over the current number of refugees (estimated at 3.5 million).”[ii]

Since Turkey has been reinforcing its military presence in Idlib after thirteen Turkish soldiers were killed there, saying that the number must now be around 15,000 would be a conservative estimate. In other words, we are not only putting more and more Turkish troops in harm’s way, but we are also paying more and more for our military presence in the area at a time when the Turkish economy is in dire straits.

Russia and the Assad regime are determined to eliminate the terrorists no matter what. It is equally clear that separating the “healthy opposition” from the “terrorists” as foreseen under the Astana agreement is mission impossible. In brief, the status quo is no longer sustainable. Thus, Ankara is faced with two questions: How to avoid further loss of Turkish soldiers and how to prevent another wave of refugees among them “rebels/militants/terrorists”?

Since some of Turkey’s “observation posts” have been overrun by regime forces, part of those 12,000 troops in Idlib are now isolated on hostile territory. The only way to ensure their safety is to negotiate not only with Moscow but also Damascus. If the ultimate solution is the withdrawal of Turkish military from Idlib we should not hesitate to do so. Because, our priority in Idlib must be the safety of our soldiers. Moreover, a negotiated withdrawal may give us a better negotiating position with Damascus when we end up discussing the future of the area which has come under Turkish control following “Operation Peace Spring”.

While we can decide on our own about Turkey’s observation posts, we cannot stop on our own a humanitarian disaster in Idlib. This depends on Damascus and Moscow. If the international community were to engage Moscow and Damascus in a result-oriented diplomatic effort beyond making calls for restraint, so much the better. Because Turkey cannot possibly open the door to another wave of refugees. And should Damascus and Moscow continue with their assaults with scant regard for civilians, then the international community can hold them accountable.

The wisdom of any policy is judged against certain criteria, prominently among them rationality, feasibility and national endorsement. Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (JDP) government’s Syria policy cannot meet any of these yardsticks, neither in its “regime change” aspect nor it’s “conduct of armed conflict” dimension. But this policy’s most striking defect is its total lack of national endorsement. Because, the Turkish public is only provided with snippets of information barely enough to sustain JDP’s core electoral support, presently much lower than what it was before it’s expanding involvement in Syria.  Yesterday, an ultimatum was served on the Assad regime to withdraw its forces in order to liberate Turkish observation posts. President Erdoğan has said military operations can start any moment. Yet, Turks hardly know where the country is heading except that their sons will be exposed to deadly harm if Damascus does not heed the warning. At least at this critical juncture the people of Turkey are entitled to know exactly which of its interests will be served, what causes will be pursued, which instruments will be used and at what cost.

Turkey’s assuming a leading role in the regime change project in Syria has proved a failure. If the government is unable to admit this openly, it should at least start repairing the damage done. A Turkish proverb says, “two rope-walkers cannot dance on the same rope.” Unfortunately for us, there are now more than two on the Syrian and Idlib ropes. A decade ago, other countries were our partners and they at least appeared to hold a safety net. Today, they are nowhere to be seen. Most of them have become our adversaries. And, biting their lips they probably prefer the continuation of the Assad regime to the rule of extremists which they see as the lesser of two evils.

It is time for the Turkish government to climb down and face the reality on the ground.


[i] Yusuf Buluc is a retired Turkish Ambassador and a former Head of NATO’s Department of Defense Plans and Policy.



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