Double Edged Sword: Idlib
Turkey and Russia have had intense negotiations about the fate of Idlib and the de-escalation zone. Turkish authorities visited Moscow numerous times as an assault on Idlib by the Syrian regime seems imminent. Both sides are interested in clearing Idlib of extremist factions like Hayat Tahrir al al-Sham, but employ different methods: while Russia seems to be preparing for a costly, full-scale offensive in Idlib, Turkey offers to use its influence and strategic position to get rid of extremists without a major military campaign by the Syrian regime, which is expected to have devastating results. Turkey and the moderate opposition can free Idlib from radical groups, building the groundwork for peace in Syria and strengthening Turkey–Russia relations at a lesser cost.
Costs and risks of a possible Idlib operation
The operational costs of the entire Idlib campaign may go beyond everything so far in Syria. Fighters who lost the battles in Aleppo, Zabadani, Ghouta, Darayya, Deraa, Qalamoun and northern Homs, and rejected reconciliation with the Syrian regime, are now concentrated in Idlib. Factions in Idlib have been preparing for a long time and built up strong defensive positions. What is more, Idlib’s large population enables the factions to recruit more fighters than ever before. In 2015, the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies estimated the annual costs of the Russian intervention in Syria at USD 1 billion to 2 billion. The entire Idlib campaign would consume military, economic and human resources which could be spend elsewhere like investments in Syria.
Russia-backed assault may successfully capture Idlib, forcing the moderate opposition to cooperate and coordinate with extremists at the same time. The Hayat Tahrir al-Sham extremists managed to build up a hostage situation that has forced the moderate opposition to join the extremists to defend their territories. This hostage situation enabled the extremists to grow, and the ‘outside’ enemy is an important argument for Hayat Tahrir al Al-Sham to make itself more legitimate in the eyes of the local population and to spread its ideology. Even if the Syrian regime manages to get control of Idlib by force, despite the huge costs, extremists will reorganize themselves underground turning Idlib into Mosul 2012.
According to the Syrian regime’s “every inch” policy, Idlib has to be recaptured by force, which will inevitably result in a new massive refugee flow towards Turkey. The Idlib area hosts one of the largest Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) populations in Syria. Airstrikes on the province would leave 2.5 million civilians with no place to go. Idlib’s pre-war population was around 700,000. Civilians who have already fled or were “evacuated” from various areas as the regime retook control went to Idlib, and would most likely try to seek refuge in Turkey. This development will be in contrast to Russian efforts to ensure the return of refugees back to Syria. While some refugees in Jordan and Lebanon prefer to return to Syria due to the poor treatment on behalf of those governments, refugees in Turkey usually only return to Turkey-controlled are as in Syria like northern Aleppo. Turkey offers much better opportunities for refugees than Lebanon or Jordan.
Turkey already hosts the biggest refugee population in the world and is facing economic pressure from US. In addition, with a new refugee flow, Turkey may end up in a big economic crisis. These dangers make Idlib to an important issue for Turkey. If Turkey does not succeed in protecting Idlib, it will also lose its leverage in Afrin and the “Euphrates Shield” area of north-eastern Aleppo, which will weaken the Turkish attempts to limit the YPG presence in Syria.
The United Nations evaluated the cost of Syria’s destruction during the war at USD 388 billion. The Assad regime claims that it can cover USD 8–13 billion of the reconstruction costs. A full-scale offensive towards Idlib will increase the costs of reconstruction Syria. It would also harm the entire Astana process and block the joint Russia–Turkey efforts to get European countries like Germany and France to support Syria’sreconstruction. Turkey is a key actor in releasing EU funds into Syria. On its own, Moscow will struggle to get the Europeans to pay for Syria’s reconstruction. Additionally, Turkish construction firms are among the best and fastest in the world. Alienating Turkey means higher costs for Syria’s reconstruction as Turkey has a strategic geographic position and is the biggest economy in the Middle East. Turkey is Syria’s largest economic partner of Syria, more so than China. China and Turkey account for half of Syria’s imports
Russia’s cooperation with Turkey on energy projects such as TurkStream and Akkuyu Nuclear station, and closer military and diplomatic ties as seen with Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 Air Defense Missile Systems in December 2017, are strong arguments not to damage the Russia–Turkey relations by launching a major attack on Idlib.
The campaign would endanger the entire peace process in Syria. The Syrian opposition may become alienated and its reintegration into Syria would become harder as they were eliminated without a constructive deal. Most factions in Idlib are part of the Astana process and are represented in the High Negotiation Council. However, a constructive deal seems impossible while Hayat Tahrir al Al-Sham remains in Idlib.
Could Russia and Turkey find a common ground for Idlib?
Still, there is a less costly, non-totalitarian alternative for Idlib. Turkey and the moderate Syrian opposition could clean the extremist factions out of Idlib. These are a common enemy for Russia and Turkey, and fighting them may serve as a solid ground to find a workable joint solution to the Idlib impasse.
Turkey has pursued a complicated “softer” policy in trying to weaken extremists in Idlib. It worked on splitting ‘pragmatists’ in Hayat Tahrir al al-Sham from ‘idealists’, thus reducing the movement’s strength. Turkey’s strategy succeeded, as the more radical wing in Hayat Tahrir al al-Sham split away and formed Hurashiddeen in February. Hayat Tahrir al al-Sham was further weakened by its fight against Jabhat Tahrir Souriyah, a defence pact between Ahrar al al-Sham and the Nureddin Zengi Movement, and the independent Suqour al al-Sham faction. The fight lasted from February to May 2018. At the beginning of the fighting, the Turkey-based Syrian Islamic Council, which enjoys huge influence among the Syrian opposition, published a statement calling for a general uprising against them. Turkey-backed rebel factions managed to push extremists out of many strategic areas like Maarat al-Numaan. In August, Turkey undertook its latest attempt to counterbalance the extremists in Idlib. Turkey gathered all of the moderate opposition in Idlib under one banner, the National Front for Liberation.
During the latest fighting between Turkish-backed factions and Hayat Tahrir al al-Sham, extremists were mainly pushed back to the Turkish border. This new situation put the extremists in a difficult position, sandwiched between Turkey in the north and Turkish-backed rebels in the south. On 29 August, Turkey updated its designation of Nusra Front as a terrorist organisation by adding Hayat Tahrir al al-Sham as its successor.
If Turkey and Russia could agree on Turkey and the moderate opposition eliminating Hayat Tahrir al al-Sham, the operation could be avoided. Many fighters of Hayat Tahrir al al-Sham who joined the faction for purposes other than ideology may reject fighting against Turkey and the armed opposition. Also, if only a part of the armed opposition without any direct Turkish support managed to push back the extremists, a Turkish-led campaign would have good chances. By doing so, Russia would avoid many costs, Syria won’t be much further destroyed, a refugee flow into Turkey won’t occur and most importantly, Turkey and Russia will maintain their relationship. From Turkish perspective, cleaning Idlib from extremist has a much less negative impact than a Russian-backed, full-scale offensive by the Syrian regime.
Idlib being cleaned of radical elements by a Turkish-Russian understanding against a joint enemy will lay the groundwork for constructive negotiations between the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition under the lead of Turkey and Russia within the Astana and Sochi process.
All in all, Russia has two options. Russia will either allow a full-scale offensive into Idlib, which will risk its relationship with Turkey and incur huge costs for Russia and Turkey, or it will try to ensure a deal with Turkey in which Turkey and Turkey-backed factions will get rid of the extremists in Idlib. The second approach contains a formula that could help settle the entire dispute between the Syrian opposition and the Syrian regime. If the opposition loses everything by force and has to accept all the demands of the Syrian regime the way Germany did after the WWI, the entire Syrian conflict will flare up again. A face-saving deal for the Syrian opposition is essential for a peaceful Syria. An agreement between Turkey and Russia over Idlib would also abolish the main dispute and further improve the Turkey–Russia relations, especially against the background of the ongoing Turkey–US crisis.