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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

Turkey's deal with Russia still leaves the US with a dilemma on its Syrian strategy

Idlib might be outside Assad’s grasp but the US now owns the challenge of uprooting Al Qaeda and fellow extremist groups as much as Turkey does

Syrian men raise a banner depicting two hands representing the opposition and the Turkish flag, with a caption in Arabic reading 'the revolutionaries are our hope and the Turks are our brothers'. Omar Haj Kadour / AFP
Syrian men raise a banner depicting two hands representing the opposition and the Turkish flag, with a caption in Arabic reading 'the revolutionaries are our hope and the Turks are our brothers'. Omar Haj Kadour / AFP

Turkey just scored a big win in Syria that could save tens of thousands of lives and avert what would have been the worst humanitarian crisis of an already terrible war, but the road ahead for the Turks in Syria is perilous.

On Monday Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a deal to establish a 15 to 20 kilometre demilitarised zone around the Greater Idlib region in northwest Syria. Monday’s deal, which Russian defence minister Sergei Shoigu stated would prevent a new campaign against Greater Idlib by the Assad regime, makes Turkey the de facto sovereign with authority over Idlib’s three million residents, more than a million of whom have been displaced from other regions of Syria.

Mr Erdogan’s decision to stand his ground in Idlib has worked for now. US President Donald Trump deserves a lot of credit for stiffening his resolve. Mr Trump’s new Syria team, which has been on the job for just over a month, is seeking to build a common US-Turkish strategy that would prevent another refugee crisis engulfing Turkey, boost the Geneva process and diminish the power of Iran.

Idlib was the first test of this new strategy and although the final result will still be unknown for some time, the early indication is that Mr Trump’s team has got off to a new start. The question is – now what?

While the international community is still waiting for specific details concerning the Turkish-Russian deal, Mr Putin made it clear on Monday that he expects Turkey to use the reprieve from Bashar Al Assad’s war machine to remove Al Qaeda and other extremist organisations from Idlib.

Although this might not be widely accepted in Washington, Mr Putin expressed a sentiment that is completely in line with the US government’s understanding that Greater Idlib is “the largest Al Qaeda safe haven since 9/11”.

Mr Erdogan himself, in a bid to court global opinion against what appeared to be Mr Al Assad’s looming campaign to conquer Idlib, asked the international community to stop him and help Turkey work with “moderate” Syrian rebels to defeat Al Qaeda and other extremist groups in Idlib.

Now that Mr Erdogan seems to have got his wish on Idlib, he will have to endure the consequences that follow from Turkey’s new role as the sheriff over this dangerous but strategic area of the Middle East.

Monday’s deal between Turkey and Russia has for all intents and purposes annexed Idlib as part of Turkey’s slowly but surely expanding zone of control in northwest Syria. As much as it might not like it, neither Mr Al Assad nor the Baath deep state that supports him will likely get Turkey’s slice of Syria back any time soon. But therein lies the problem, both for Mr Erdogan and Mr Trump.

Both have touted such a public defence of Idlib, while acknowledging the severe threat to international security as a result of the extremist organisations present there, that both will now be compelled to act against these groups or risk Russia giving its blessing to Mr Al Assad’s long-desired war against Idlib.

Yet what makes Idlib so difficult is that there is no easy path for Turkey and the US to uproot extremist groups from this region, because the awful truth is that they have developed a significant degree of community cover from the local Syrian population.

All of the major extremist groups in Idlib – including Huras Al Din (the declared Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria), Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (once Jabhat Al Nusra, the former declared Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria), and the Turkistan Islamic Party (which was founded by ethnic Uighur jihadist fighters in western China) – are to one degree or another tightly woven into local Syrian civil society in Idlib.

These organisations, although they include a significant number of foreign fighters, also possess many Syrian members and are actively involved in the security and governance of the region. Taking them on will not be easy and will likely result in bloodshed and mass displacement inside Idlib, which will impose a human and political cost on Turkey and the US.

Turkey’s preferred method of using its various Syrian rebel proxy forces to take on these organisations, especially the National Liberation Front and the Syrian National Army, in lieu of its own military, probably won’t likely work. Despite receiving Turkish training – and in the case of the Syrian National Army, funding from Turkey – these rebel forces are still at best makeshift armies.

Both forces are riddled with questionable actors and include groups such as Ahrar Al Sham, a militant Salafist, Al Qaeda-nurtured outfit and frequent Hayat Tahrir Al Sham ally, which shares the same goal in Syria as the latter. Their quarrel with each other is over who holds most power within the opposition and how to govern who gets its spoils, not over what end state comes out of the revolution. With the help of these Syrian rebel “armies”, is Turkey really equipped to take on Al Qaeda and its fellow adventurers in Idlib alone?

None of this is easy for American policy. The Trump team has wagered its Syria strategy on keeping Idlib outside Mr Al Assad’s grasp. It has accomplished that for now but the US now owns the challenge of uprooting Al Qaeda and fellow extremist groups from Idlib as much as Turkey does.

Mr Trump suspended military support to vetted armed opposition last year and although Turkey has the means to make up for that, the question remains over what the US team is authorised to do to make sure the job gets done in Idlib.

Thus far, there has been little indication from the Trump administration on this matter, but it is a very serious one. In the name of US national security and fighting Al Qaeda, will the Trump team reverse its decision to engage with the Syrian armed opposition or will it leave Turkey alone to do the job?

Nicholas Heras is the Middle East security fellow at the Centre for a New American Security in Washington DC