Turkey’s calculus in Idlib

The relationship between Turkey and Arab rebels remains, to some extent, mutually beneficial.

2017/10/01 Issue: 125 Page: 8

The Arab Weekly
Abdulrahman al-Masri

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that his country would deploy troops into Syria’s north-western gov­ernorate of Idlib as part of the de-escalation zone agreement reached with Russia and Iran.

Turkey and Russia are expected to lead a military operation in Idlib, which borders Turkey’s Hatay province, to eliminate al- Qaeda extremists in the Syrian governorate. Erdogan said the military plan is a joint operation in Idlib between the Russians and the Turks. “Russians are main­taining security outside Idlib and Turkey will maintain the security inside Idlib,” he said.

Idlib is almost completely controlled by rebels and Islamist jihadists groups, including al-Qae­da-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). While the two are driven by different geopolitical motives, Turkey and Russia both gain from their cooperation on Idlib.

Multiple reports suggested that Russia and Turkey were planning on dividing the Idlib governorate into three areas of influence. The first is the northern part, or the Turkish influence region, south of the Turkish border, where Turkish armed forces and Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels would be stationed. Another is the southern part of Idlib, or the Russian influence region, which would witness deployment of Russian military police. In both parts, the Turks and the Russians would fight to push HTS towards a third part, between the two other regions, where the jihadists would likely face their fate.

While Turkey and Russia clearly have divergent interests in Idlib, the agreement would likely serve their short-term ones for the north-west region.

For Russia, de-escalating vio­lence in the southern part of Idlib would benefit its ally in Damascus by pushing rebels towards the north and cementing a secure buffer line that would shield the Assad regime’s heartland in the coastal region from any rebel of­fensives.

The Turks’ position in Idlib is more complex. Ankara’s pri­orities for northern Syria are seemingly centred on securing Turkey’s southern border with Idlib, consolidating the presence of Turkey-friendly FSA rebels at border crossings while containing Kurdish expansion.

Going this direction would likely serve Turkey’s long-term objec­tives of preventing the establish­ment of a Kurdish state on its southern border. However, the Turkish agenda for Idlib would not necessarily go free of challenges.

In northern Syria, Ankara sup­ports many FSA groups, mounting to as many as 50 factions that have fought with the Turkish Army in the 216-day military incursion it launched into the north last year. Erdogan’s priority in northern Syria is to weaken the standing of the US-backed Syrian Kurdish force, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

While the Arab rebels are inter­ested in countering YPG expan­sion, their main concern is fighting the Assad regime. Ankara shifted the priorities of northern rebels last year to align with its own. However, this may not be the case for long, especially with apparent Turkish rapprochement with Rus­sia and Iran, backers of the Assad regime and enemies of Syria’s Arab rebels.

Turkey is not as interested as it used to be in leading regime change in Syria or in supporting the rebels in a way that would hurt its national security goals. With the Trump administration suspending the US aid programme to the FSA, Syrian rebels are left with few options. Their opera­tional capacity may continue to be limited in northern Syria and they are marooned to cling on Turkey’s ability to make deals with interna­tional powers.

However, the relationship between Turkey and Arab rebels remains, to some extent, mutu­ally beneficial. Since August of last year, Ankara has been heavily involved in solidifying local Arab governance in the north.

Going forward after Idlib, Tur­key seems intent on linking the area it helped FSA rebels capture last year, which includes al-Bab and Azaz, known as the Euphrates Shield region, with the aspired northern Idlib pocket. What is between these two regions is the YPG-held Afrin enclave in north-western Aleppo governorate.

Ankara’s vision most likely includes the capturing of Afrin. During the Euphrates Shield operation, which was said to be completed in March, Turkey prevented the YPG from connect­ing its Afrin enclave with the rest of its controlled territory in the north-east.

However, if Turkey goes towards Afrin, it risks clashing with Rus­sian troops, who were reportedly deployed to the Kurdish enclave in March. It is unknown whether the agreement between Ankara and Moscow includes Russia hand­ing over Afrin in exchange for southern Idlib. What is clear is that Ankara finds Moscow more ame­nable to work with than the United States, which antagonised Turkey by continuing to support the YPG.

It is likely that Turkey and Russia will cooperate in the Idlib de-escalation agreement. What is after Idlib is yet to be seen. The prospect of Russian-Turkish cooperation in northern Syria is dependent on whether Moscow can be flexible enough to drop its support of the YPG.

How the Idlib agreement will be implemented is highly significant for Turkish involvement in the Syria war and for the future of northern Syria.

Abdulrahman al-Masri covers politics and news in the Middle East and Syria in particular. He can be followed on Twitter: @AbdulrhmanMasri

As Printed
Editors' Picks

The Arab Weekly Newspaper reaches Western & Arabic audience that are influential as well as being affluent.

From Europe to the Middle East,and North America, The Arab Weekly talks to opinion formers and influential figures, providing insight and comment on national, international and regional news through the focus of Arabic countries and community.

Published by Al Arab Publishing House

Publisher and Group Executive Editor: Haitham El-Zobaidi, PhD

Editor-in-Chief: Oussama Romdhani

Managing Editor: Iman Zayat

Deputy Managing Editor and Online Editor: Mamoon Alabbasi

Senior Editor: John Hendel

Chief Copy Editor: Richard Pretorius

Copy Editor: Stephen Quillen

Analysis Section Editor: Ed Blanche

East/West Section Editor: Mark Habeeb

Gulf Section Editor: Mohammed Alkhereiji

Society and Travel Sections Editor: Samar Kadi

Syria and Lebanon Sections Editor: Simon Speakman Cordall

Contributing Editor: Rashmee Roshan Lall

Senior Correspondents: Mahmud el-Shafey (London) & Lamine Ghanmi (Tunis)

Regular Columnists

Claude Salhani

Yavuz Baydar


Saad Guerraoui (Casablanca)

Dunia El-Zobaidi (London)

Roua Khlifi (Tunis)

Thomas Seibert (Washington)

Chief Designer: Marwen Hmedi


Ibrahim Ben Bechir

Hanen Jebali

Published by Al Arab Publishing House

Contact editor at:editor@thearabweekly.com

Subscription & Advertising: Ads@alarab.co.uk

Tel 020 3667 7249

Mohamed Al Mufti

Marketing & Advertising Manager

Tel (Main) +44 20 6702 3999

Direct: +44 20 8742 9262


Al Arab Publishing House

Kensington Centre

177-179 Hammersmith Road

London W6 8BS , UK

Tel: (+44) 20 7602 3999

Fax: (+44) 20 7602 8778

Follow Us
© The Arab Weekly, All rights reserved