Home Assad-Kurds alliance can resolve Turkey’s conundrum in Syria

Assad-Kurds alliance can resolve Turkey’s conundrum in Syria

In a major diplomatic win, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin have agreed to establish[i] a “demilitarized zone” in Idlib to forestall Syrian bombardment against rebels last stronghold. Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister, Faisal Mekdad, suggested[ii] that the de-escalation agreement was similar to other pacts brokered by Russia over the course of the civil war, eventually returning the province to the government. It is, however, difficult to say that if Turkey agrees with his assessment. As the agreement does not clearly outline the long-term resolution of the conflict in/on the province, Turkey might be of the impression that Idlib will remain under its permanent protectorate, something Bashar-al Assad is unlikely to endure. As a matter of fact, Assad signaled Turkey by calling the agreement as “temporary” at a Baath Party function recently. Thus, while the possibility of the conflict between Syria and Turkey in the province may have gone down, it definitely has not ended.   

Actors Dilemma

Sun Tzu had said that when in a war it is better to strike the weakest first and then go for the strongest. In the Syrian case, the weaker ones are the affiliates to ISIS, though their combined carnages and destruction in Syria are much more as compared to Turkey. Unlike other wars, an interesting aspect here is that Russian’s are using Turkey to disarm and excise the extremists from the province. For instance, Turkish-backed rebels like the National Liberation Front (NLF), agreed to comply[iii] with the deal without any dispute. This would have not been possible under Syrian or Russian authority. While the jihadi faction affiliated with Al-Qaeda, known as Hurras al-Din that split from Jabhat al-Nusra and Hayat Tahir al-Sham (HTS), have put pressure on its former members do not abide by the deal. Turkey’s efforts have worked in convincing these groups to act[iv] in accordance with the demilitarized zone’s agreement. However, formerly US-backed Free Syrian Army (Jaysh al-Izza)[v] and Faylaq al-Sham have refused[vi] to obey the pact. They argue that instead of splitting the province evenly among the rebel groups and government, it should be entirely separated from them, leaving the third party in control. This triggered a Syrian reaction: The Syrian National Army (SNA) is ready to fight against the rebels in Idlib but seem to be leaving the Russians to decide the next move, who apparently have serene perceptive here.

The Russians have indicated a flexible deadline with Turks to cope with the rebel’s failure to withdraw without meeting immediate violence. While Moscow appears to be more interested in the de-escalation process, the burden of securing peace in Idlib lies with Turkey’s efforts to rein in the rebels. Here, the only problem for Turkey would be HTS, the largest rebel group in Idlib who does not have any problem with the de-escalation agreement but insists to continue its war against the Assad government. On the other side, the Syrian government will not possibly agree to have extremist groups, like HTS, who intend to occupy a part of its country’s territory indefinitely. Suppose, Turkey succeeds in averting a Syrian invasion by inducing HTS to abide by the agreement, an offensive in the province is still foreseeable.

Ankara’s sustained anti-Assad stance and attempt to annex the northern Aleppo province is not welcomed by Assad. In recent months, Erdogan has intensified its role to administer northern Syrian border territories which they captured from the Islamic State, Syrian Democratic Force and organisations considered as terror groups by the Turkish government since August 2016.[vii] Though these territories are formally governed by the Syrian interim government, an alternative government of the opposition based in Azaz and other autonomous local councils, Turkey exert direct dominance in the region. Erdogan’s ambitious projects like constructing hospital, universities and the newly paved road connecting the Syrian city of AL-Bab and Turkish Elbeyli that is striven to restore the civil society in the areas under their control and also bind the region closer to Turkey suggests that Turkey is in no frame of mind to withdraw anytime soon. Unless the people of northern Syria hold an election, which is not likely to take place anytime soon as the Kurds, who have a tacit understanding with the Assad government, are yet to reach a breakthrough. Meanwhile, some locals began to accept and welcome these developments as “Turkification” of the region.[viii]   They believe that northern Syria is better off economically, politically and socially under the Turkish protectorate as compared to the Syrian government.[ix]

Way Forward.

These factors provide Erdogan the opportunity to sustain its legitimacy in the province. The Turkish parliament has formally extended[x] its military mission in both Syria and Iraq for another year. This seems not to be a good sign for the Syrian government as well as the Kurds in the region. Adding to that, with the implementation of Russia-Turkey deal, Ankara has sent its military envoy[xi] to reinforce its 12 observation posts around the province, cueing that Erdogan is prepared to fight against Assad for gaining control over the region, if necessary. For Assad, it is essential to understand that he was able to turn the tide of seven-year civil war in his favor because of Iran-Hezbollah and Russian support. Given the relationship Turkey shares with Iran and Russia, the continuation of peace talks will become a never-ending issue in the province. Assad government is weak and has no ability to fight against Turkey which has the potential to relegate Syria to the pre-war status. The mere way to avoid permanent Turkish occupation or another catastrophe in the region is to accept the Kurds minority’s rights and to reach a common understanding of governance that will result in an election.

 

References

[ii] The Daily Star Newspaper - Lebanon. (2018). Syria minister vows Idlib will be recovered: newspaper. [online] Available at: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/Middle-East/2018/Sep-25/464388-syria-minister-vows-idlib-will-be-recovered-newspaper.ashx [Accessed 5 Nov. 2018].

[iv] Middle East Monitor. (2018). Syrian hardliners signal acceptance of Idlib deal. [online] Available at: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20181015-syrian-hardliners-signal-acceptance-of-idlib-deal/ [Accessed 5 Nov. 2018].

[vi] Ahval. (2018). Syrian rebel forces deny withdrawal from Idlib buffer zone | Ahval. [online] Available at: https://ahvalnews.com/idlib/syrian-rebel-forces-deny-withdrawal-idlib-buffer-zone [Accessed 5 Nov. 2018].

[viii] Turkification is a cultural shift whereby population, state or region adopts historic Turkic culture, such as in the Ottoman Empire. 

[x] The Daily Star Newspaper - Lebanon. (2018). Turkey parliament extends mandate for troop deployment in Syria, Iraq. [online] Available at: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/News/World/2018/Oct-03/465322-turkey-parliament-extends-mandate-for-troop-deployment-in-syria-iraq.ashx [Accessed 5 Nov. 2018].

<a data-cke-saved-href="#_ednref11" href="#_ednref11" data-cke-saved-name="_edn11" name="_edn11" style="color: rgb(7, 130, 193); background: url(" https:="" www.claws.in="" ckeditor="" plugins="" link="" images="" anchor.png?t="D08E&quot;)" left="" center="" no-repeat;="" border:="" 1px="" dotted="" rgb(0,="" 0,="" 255);="" padding-left:="" 18px;="" cursor:="" auto;"="" title="">[xi] Turkishminute.com. (2018). Turkish troop convoy enters Syria rebel zone as Idlib agreement deadline nears - Turkish Minute. [online] Available at: https://www.turkishminute.com/2018/10/03/turkish-troop-convoy-enters-syria-rebel-zone-as-idlib-agreement-deadline-nears/ [Accessed 5 Nov. 201

 

 

Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CLAWS or of the Government of India.

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Nagapushpa Devendra

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