Prisoners of Idlib: Turkey, Russia, America and the Fate of Syria’s Last Opposition Stronghold
The Syrian province of Idlib now stands nearly alone, the last bastion of opposition control in Syria. Its fate is almost certainly sealed — the province will fall under Syrian regime control in the next year or two. But the nature of its fall, whether it goes down in a violent cataclysm that spreads refugees and jihadists across the region or whether its leaders are able to peacefully negotiate its re-entry into Syria, is far from certain. The outcome will depend largely on the interaction between Russia and Turkey, the two most influential external actors in Idlib.
Russia and Turkey have an incentive to cooperate on finding a peaceful solution in Idlib. The Russians understand that a government invasion of Idlib would only lengthen the war and prolong their commitment to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Turks do not want to risk yet another massive flow of refugees into Turkey, which would threaten their ability to exercise influence in northern Syria, and undermine their policy of repatriating many of the millions of refugees already in Turkey.
They also both recognize that they need each other. Russia depends on Turkey to manage the opposition and Turkey depends on Russia to manage Assad. Only Russia, through its control over the Syrian government’s airpower, can possibly restrain the Assad regime from attacking Idlib. Only Turkey, which has trained and equipped many of the opposition militias in Idlib, can conceivably get those groups to negotiate with the Assad regime and eventually lay down their weapons in support of a peace arrangement both sides agree to.
Alas, incentives are not destiny. As is so often the case in civil wars, both Russia and Turkey have a limited capacity to control their clients in Syria. Russia and Turkey have a lot staked on success in Syria and so neither the rebels nor the Assad regime really believe that their respective patrons will abandon them. More to the point, both the regime and the insurgents are fighting for their very lives. They often don’t respond to even severe pressure or threats from their closest allies when they feel that compromise would put their futures at risk.
The United States faces a very different sort of issue. It is the most powerful actor in Syria and has the greatest strategic flexibility, but it is far less involved in Idlib than either Russia or Turkey. It also has an interest in a Turkish-Russian agreement that spares the enclave from massive violence and rids the region of al-Qaeda linked groups. But Idlib is not very important to the United States.
This article charts the likely outcome of Turkish and Russian efforts to reach an agreement over how to settle the Idlib question and to control their clients. It then recommends a strategy for the United States to pursue in Idlib that can realize its minimum objective of ending the al-Qaeda safe haven there. The U.S. strategy proposed is fairly minimal. It does not seek to overturn the Assad regime or even to maintain Idlib in more moderate opposition hands. To the contrary, it recognizes that the deep stakes of the other actors involved in Syria’s civil war mean that the United States should focus on its most narrow and achievable goals.
Russia and Turkey Need One Another
Russian-Turkish cooperation is a relatively new phenomena in the Syrian civil war. Moscow’s entry into the Syrian civil war came, arguably, at the height of Turkish power in Syria’s northwest and in direct response to Turkish success. In loose coordination with the United States, Turkish-backed rebels, including some radical elements, had taken control of the Idlib governorate and were threatening to push into Latakia and beyond.
This rapid opposition offensive prompted a Russian counter-escalation. From the outset of their deployment, the Russians focused their aerial attacks on insurgent safe havens on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey. In doing so, Russian aircraft routinely violated Turkish airspace, presumably to prevent Turkish aircraft from using patrols along the border to deter bombardment on or near the border. In November 2015, the Turkish Air Force responded by shooting down a Russian SU-24 bomber.
In retaliation, the Russian air force bombarded Turkish supply lines to Aleppo, foreshadowing the offensive to take full control of the city in late 2016. As part of this offensive, Russia first worked with the Syrian Kurdish militia, to pressure Turkish proxies and supply routes to and from the city. In parallel, Moscow imposed sanctions on Turkey, designed to disrupt Turkish exports to Russia, to punish Turkish business people who took advantage of visa-free travel for commerce, and to undermine Turkey’s lucrative tourism sector.
Turkey and Russia only managed to come together in Syria after they realized their mutual dislike of U.S. strategy there. A U.S.-led offensive to seize Manbij in early 2016 crossed a Turkish red line by bringing Syrian Kurdish forces west of the Euphrates river. Turkish concerns stemmed from a fear that the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) would consolidate governance across northern Syria. The PYD’s militia, the YPG, is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), an insurgent group active in Turkey since 1984.
The YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took control of Manbij — with American backing — in mid-August 2016. The fall of the city prompted a Turkish intervention against SDF areas in northern Syria. In both cases, the casus belli for Turkish intervention stemmed from concerns about Kurdish expansion of territory and the consolidation of PYD-linked governing structures. Turkey turned to Russia for political support, and sought its acquiescence to a Turkish military presence in northern Syria.
Moscow agreed and has even slowly lifted sanctions on Turkey, but there was a price. Russia enlisted Turkey in its effort to establish a series of de-escalation zones, designed to enable regime offensives and to force insurgent capitulation. Assad had an interest in using de-escalation to freeze fighting on certain fronts so that his forces could amass firepower and resources, methodically eliminating opposition safe havens elsewhere.
As part of this strategy, the regime and Russia also used Turkish-controlled territory as an “insurgent sink,” where populations from insurgent-held territory are bused and relocated after a campaign of mass punishment forces capitulation. The mass movement of military-aged males and their families to Turkish-controlled or influenced areas in Syria is now a key element of the Russian strategy to de-escalate the conflict and force the active pockets of the insurgency to capitulate to regime control. Turkey, in essence, enabled the Russian effort to restore the Assad regime’s control throughout Syria.
In return, Turkey won from Russia the freedom to operate against Turkey’s Kurdish enemies and, eventually, to create a degree of stability in the north. The current stability in northern Syria allows Ankara to reverse the flow of refugee travel, and ensure that refugees leave Turkey for Syria (and not vice versa).
But What About Idlib?
Even if Turkey and Russia have come together over Syria, their proxies remain violently opposed to each other. Idlib presents itself as the location of their final showdown. The Turkish-influenced enclave is the last vestige of the anti-Assad opposition and is often the destination for rebel fighters forced to leave contested areas in other parts of Syria.
To date, Turkey and Russia have managed to sidestep the Idlib question and achieve a shaky status quo in the province. Turkish-Russian cooperation over the province makes sense. A regime offensive, backed by Russian airpower, would be bloody and could extend the war, thereby prolonging Moscow’s direct participation in a civil war. For Turkey, any sharp escalation in violence risks re-igniting a mass movement of people and pushing more refugees into Turkey.
The approach maintains a level of stability but it does not resolve the main issues of the war. For Moscow, the Syrian civil conflict is a geopolitical power play aimed at preventing yet another Western-sponsored regime change in the Middle East. But for Assad the war is about whether the insurgency will be able to topple and kill him and his family.
Accordingly, even as Moscow and Damascus may share an interest of preventing the collapse of the regime, they take a very different approach to the notion of a compromise peace. Russia can imagine reaching an agreement. The Assad regime wants to “drain the swamp” through a ruthless campaign of mass punishment and ethnic cleansing in insurgent areas. This approach treats the insurgency as a conventional army, rather than a population to co-opt and engage through the provision of services and security. The opposition leadership, as a result, cannot allow for the return of the regime because that eventuality means death.
Since their reconciliation in 2016, Russia and Turkey have managed their proxies through negotiation and ethnic population swaps. Idlib, particularly, acted as a militia sink to facilitate the movement of people. However, for that very reason, the regime is now certain to turn its sights on the last vestiges of the insurgency in Idlib that, if allowed time to regenerate, could threaten Assad’s grip on power. The friction, then, comes between Russian promises to Turkey and Moscow’s alignment with Assad. It implies that they need to manage very carefully the coming offensive in Idlib.
Specifically, the Russians will want Syrian government forces to launch a phased regime offensive, starting with the Jisr Al-Shughur countryside and areas in Latakia near the Turkish border. This step-by-step approach allows Moscow to keep Turkey involved in bilateral negotiations and increases the pressure on Ankara to then pressure the anti-Assad opposition to capitulate. The Turkish military has a small presence at 12 observation points ringing Idlib to enforce the agreement Ankara reached with Moscow (and Tehran) to de-escalate. However, those observation points have no serious defenses, and could easily be overrun. They exist through mutual agreement with Moscow (and the regime) and the local groups, including Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an al-Qaeda linked group, and the even more radical actor, Huras al Din. When the Idlib offensive begins, Turkey will have to choose between defending these small outposts or withdrawing. For now, Ankara has an interest in bolstering defenses to protect these small outposts from asymmetric threats, but also preparing to abandon these posts if negotiations with Moscow break down.
The regime can afford to wait, at least for a while. Turkey will try to use the increased regime pressure on Idlib to get the local groups to turn on HTS and other al-Qaeda linked groups and to accept the idea of a negotiated solution and regime return. This will be a challenge. The core HTS leadership defines itself in opposition to regime rule. The group is also a cohesive and large fighting force, which makes it a more formidable militia than the fractured insurgent landscape that has dominated Syria’s north since the start of the civil war.
For Assad’s broader warfighting strategy, the presence of HTS and Huras al Din presents both an opportunity and a challenge. On the one hand, Assad has framed the rebellion as a fight with “jihadist radicals” and has used the al-Qaeda linked groups as proof of the validity of this argument. However, to end the war, the regime also has an interest in separating irreconcilable elements of the opposition from those that could accept regime return. HTS, one would assume, will remain irreconcilable and will eventually have to be directly targeted with military force. For the reconcilable elements, they could be lured to join with the regime, or a Russian-allied militia that fights alongside Assad’s forces. Russia has enlisted Turkey’s help to turn the Idlib insurgency on itself; to use local forces to do the heavy lifting to sort the reconcilable from the irreconcilable; and to then use local forces to fight a common threat.
Thus, in the short term, each side sees an advantage in a limited intervention in Idlib. For Russia and the regime, the offensive will simultaneously increase pressure on HTS and Turkey. For the Turks, a small offensive can be managed, and preparations can be made to prevent the mass movement of people across the border. Each external actor in the conflict can use a limited conflict along Idlib’s periphery effectively to negotiate with their various allies and enemies over the final outcome for the province. The danger, particularly for Turkey, is that if these efforts fail to produce a local opposition ready to make concessions to Assad and Moscow, a major escalation in Idlib becomes inevitable.
America and the Fate of Idlib
In the end, the fate of Idlib mostly depends on the concurrent Russian and Turkish efforts to negotiate with their own proxies. At the bilateral level, Turkey and Russia have an incentive to continue to negotiate, avoid a massive offensive, and explore ways to facilitate a peace agreement that spares human life. However, this outcome is certain to cause friction with the regime and with the anti-Assad opposition. The outcome of this two-level game should guide American thinking about its own options in Syria.
Of course, the United States has its own complicated relationships to manage. Washington is not without options, but American leverage is tied to a nonstate actor, the Syrian Democratic Forces, a powerful militia dominated by Syrian Kurds. The SDF is anathema to the Turks but, unlike the Turkish-backed militias, shares the U.S. objective of defeating ISIL.
The challenge, now, is to manage the American presence and to turn its victory against ISIL into the best possible outcome for U.S. interests. The United States should abandon its effort for “total victory” and build a strategy around a narrow set of interests. A policy that imposes unachievable outcomes, like the elimination of Iranian influence in Syria or the total collapse of the regime, is certain to fail.
Instead, the United States should play to its strengths. As an isolated combatant, divorced from questions about Idlib or from having to manage a fractious insurgent coalition or a corrupt regime, the United States is well-positioned to take advantage of almost any outcome in Idlib. To do so, the United States should recognize the interests and forthcoming challenges its competitors in Syria will face, and then take steps to formulate a policy that makes assumptions about how the Russian/regime-Turkish/opposition interactions will shape outcomes in Idlib.
To end the insurgency, the Assad regime will have to re-impose control over the country’s borders. Damascus benefits tremendously from Russian patronage and security guarantees. However, the two sides are not perfectly aligned. Absent a robust Russian-Turkish agreement that addresses core regime security concerns, Damascus could force Moscow’s hand, resulting in a violent approach to resolving the Idlib issue. A Russian-backed offensive would put pressure on al-Qaeda linked groups as the United States wants, but it would also displace thousands of people and extend human suffering.
U.S. recognition of regime victory is not a satisfying outcome. However, at this point in the war, it is clear that the regime can and will take the necessary steps to ensure that it presses its advantage and addresses threats to its survival. As an independent combatant, mostly concerned about the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, the United States should be flexible, and understand the motivations of the various actors locked up in Idlib. For the United States, the best achievable outcome depends on other independent actors upending the status quo and bringing more pressure to bear on the radical groups now operating in relative safety inside Syria, while also avoiding another humanitarian catastrophe.
Aaron Stein is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
Image: Anadolu Agency