Cleaning up Turkey’s Mess in Idlib and Ending the War
Next week, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan will trek to a summit with the leaders of France, Germany, and Russia to attempt to sort out the utter mess that is Idlib Province. The location has not yet been announced, but whether he travels by car or jet, one wonders what he will be thinking about his country’s long-running involvement in Syria’s disastrously internationalized civil war.
Under Erdoğan’s leadership, Ankara staked much of its recent fortunes in Syria on cooperation with Russia, believing that President Vladimir Putin would negotiate on behalf of the Syrian regime in good faith and ultimately reach a mutually beneficial agreement with Ankara that would make concessions to the opposition Turkey backs and take into account Turkish security concerns about Syrian Kurdish nationalists.
Turkey is paying for this poor decision. Putin is intent on defeating the Syrian opposition forces Turkey supports in Idlib and seems to care little what Erdogan thinks about it. Meanwhile, key leaders in Washington still seem to believe that America can somehow deny the Syrian regime a victory, and that because Damascus is in such financial distress it will be willing to make political compromises that Bashar al-Assad has signaled are off the table. The available evidence suggests that Moscow and Damascus are committed to absorbing the cost of escalation, including the use of force to deter the movement of Turkish soldiers aimed at reinforcing positions along the M4 and M5 highways. This offensive has led to a breathtaking amount of civilian suffering and raised the specter of a Turkish-Assad regime conflict for control over northwestern Syria, an outcome that risks more bloodshed and state-on-state conflict in the now nine-year civil war.
As Idlib collapses, the best path forward also seems the most unlikely: Washington should pressure Turkey to negotiate the opposition’s surrender, rather than backing Ankara’s decision to give open-ended but inadequate support to these armed groups. Absent a dramatic Turkish escalation, support from Ankara will not stop Damascus’ advance against the opposition forces in Syria’s last rebel held enclave. Turkey’s support to armed groups in Idlib will make the war longer, but will not change the outcome — a lesson that too few have learned from this tragic war.
How can the United States convince Turkey to change course? How can it reach agreements with various parties to prevent the slaughter of innocents, ease Turkey’s refugee burden, and encourage reconciliation in a post-conflict Syria? I will try to answer these questions and more, knowing that suffering will continue regardless of the policy chosen, and that an ascendant Syrian regime cannot ever be truly trusted to protect civilians. Still, if ending the war and easing suffering is a goal worth pursuing, a pathway to de-escalating and freezing the violence will save more lives than indefinitely arming an opposition that cannot win.
In September 2018, Ankara agreed with Moscow on establishing a de-escalation zone in Idlib and signed the accompanying Sochi Memorandum of Understanding, a poorly worded document that obligated Ankara to clear terrorist groups from Idlib and to allow safe passage on the M4 and M5 highways, in exchange for a freeze in Syrian regime attacks on the opposition. This agreement has collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.
After close to two years of talks and overt joint efforts to pressure the United States to withdraw from the conflict, Ankara’s relationship with Russia is under strain. The Russian military is enforcing a de facto no-fly zone over Idlib, where the Syrian army, backed by Russian and Iranian units, has retaken the M5 highway, and appears poised to continue an offensive to capture the M4. The offensive has uprooted hundreds of thousands of people, forcing them to flee to the border with Turkey, where they are being stacked up in refugee camps, or shunted in to Turkish-controlled Afrin and northern Aleppo.
The United States may, on the surface, appear to share overlapping interests with Turkey. Ankara and Moscow remain embroiled in tense negotiations for the future of Idlib and Turkish soldiers have been killed fighting against the Russian-backed Syrian government. The United States has won its war in Syria against the Islamic State group and should consider how to manage unintended escalation, rather than encouraging Ankara to continue a fight it cannot win at acceptable cost.
In a fair fight, the Syrian Arab Army is no match for the Turkish armed forces. But Idlib is not a fair fight. Turkey’s options to escalate with the Syrian regime risk a counter-escalation from Russia, which knows that Ankara fears such a counter-strike. Russia can tailor such an escalation in a number of ways. It can make life miserable for Turkish forces in Syria, either by bombing supply lines or by extending the fight into areas Ankara occupies and administers along the border.
The United States has a clear interest in challenging Russia. Idlib is not the place to do this. Ankara fears a mass movement of people that would upend Turkey’s three-year-old effort to stave off more refugees and settle people in parts of Turkish-controlled northern Syria once dominated by Kurds. The Russian-Syrian offensive may push an overwhelming number of refugees to flood these areas and, eventually, Turkey itself. Knowing this, Turkey has a strong interest in reaching an agreement with Russia on the future of Idlib. Turkey needs Idlib to remain relatively violence-free to prevent the type of mass displacement that risks Turkish gains elsewhere in the country. Moscow understands this and can pressure Ankara by targeting Turkish forces if they are used to aid the rebels in Idlib. Russia can extend that pressure to areas Turkey now occupies along the border. If Russia were to do this, the safe zones Turkey has created will no longer be safe, risking more displacement of the Syrians that Turkey wants to remain in Syria.
Turkey has sought to coerce Russia through the buildup its forces, betting that because they are so qualitatively superior to the Syrian regime Russia will step in and make concessions on behalf of Assad that are amenable to Turkish interests. Ankara used this strategy with the United States, most recently in late 2019, when the Turkish military invaded Syria’s northeast after efforts at cooperation on border security collapsed. The Turkish action forced an American withdrawal from the border and ended with U.S. Amb. James Jeffrey traveling to Ankara to sign a ceasefire that capitulated to Turkey’s demands along the border. Russia faces fewer constraints in playing hardball with Turkey.
Turkey shares few interests in Syria with its allies, and the Syrian civil war is not an issue NATO is prepared to deal with. It is out of NATO’s core area, as defined in Article 6 of the North Atlantic Treaty, and Turkish support for the Syrian opposition presents a series of broader problems for much of Europe and for many in the United States. The fundamental challenge is that the most dominant group inside Idlib is Hayat Tahrir al Sham, a militant group that has links to al Qaeda, and which Ankara has pledged to defeat in its negotiations with Moscow. This group, however, is enmeshed within the anti-Assad insurgency, so any Turkish effort to defeat it would come at the expense of its overarching effort to hold together the menagerie of militias it has dubbed the National Army. Russia has exploited the very real presence of HTS in Idlib to justify its bombing. As it has increased its support for Assad in Idlib, Russia claims it is simply targeting al Qaeda and enforcing the terms Ankara agreed to in September 2018 but never followed through with.
The West is unlikely to do more than condemn. On the military level, the threat of escalation with Russia outweighs the benefits of stepping in to defend the insurgency, taking a Western military operation off the table. Moscow can then comfortably assume that the worst it may face is more punitive sanctions or more Turkish support to its rebel proxies. However, that support is insufficient to thwart the Syrian regime’s advances. Ankara, knowing this as well, is then faced with the option of escalating on behalf of the rebels, as it is doing now, or sitting back and letting Idlib collapse. Ankara has no leverage. Pumping more money and guns into the conflict will extend it, but will not tilt the outcome in favor of the anti-Assad opposition.
The United States is not going to intervene in Syria. President Donald Trump has sought to narrow American goals in Syria to guarding oil facilities and conducting counter-terrorism raids. NATO is not going to do much more in the absence of political will from Washington and divisions within the alliance about how to respond to the Syrian crisis. Turkey’s current course is therefore unsustainable.
If one accepts these facts, Washington’s options appear extremely limited. The “least worst” option is to prepare for Idlib to fall to Damascus and take steps to minimize the suffering that will follow, accepting that Turkey is unlikely to accept more refugees. The best way to do this is to engage Russia on terms for a permanent ceasefire, with the intent of negotiating an end to the war. Assad will not step down. What will be the opposition’s terms for surrender? What can the United States demand? And how could Ankara join the process, in support of the American-preferred outcome, now that it has hopefully learned the costs of being an enabler of Russian interests in Syria?
We already see the argument that America’s best option is to show resolve and somehow double down on Idlib, somehow supporting Turkish military efforts to defend the enclave. This leads to obvious questions: Wouldn’t a Turkish zone protected in perpetuity be preferable to surrender? Couldn’t Turkey just de facto annex much of its border with Syria, joining the United States in control over swaths of Syria that the regime can never return to? The answer, of course, is: probably not.
Ankara cannot and will not protect Idlib forever. To do so, the Turkish military would need to attack and target regime forces probing around the periphery of these zone for the foreseeable future, and then flood these zones with aid and assistance. Ankara retains the capability to launch offensive operations close to its borders, but as its burdens have increased, it has had trouble managing the five interlinked operations it is now conducting. The Turkish military has been engaged in continuous combat operations since December 2015, beginning with a large effort to clear Kurdish militants in the country’s southeast, then three operations in Syria, ongoing efforts in northern Iraq, and now with the deployment in Idlib.
Ankara has sought to ease the burden, transferring responsibilities to its proxies. But these groups remain unable to operate in even basic ways without significant Turkish support. And, as Turkey has assumed responsibility for safe zones in Syria, it has also absorbed the costs for the Syrians it is now protecting. It does not have the military capacity to keep fighting indefinitely even if relatively small operations can still be executed and small operating bases maintained inside a narrow strip of territory in Syria.
The United States is Turkey’s ally, but has little interest in the Turkish armed forces being bogged down in an unwinnable war in Syria, taking casualties and being humiliated by Russian bombardment. It is distracting. A ceasefire makes sound strategic sense. It also would be preferable to an outcome in which more Syrians will die fighting for an unwinnable endeavor. Negotiations with Russia will not be easy, nor straightforward. Idlib is a massive humanitarian catastrophe and the Assad regime is almost certain to exact revenge on innocent civilians it accuses of being disloyal. The United States ought to work to prevent this, but the path to doing so is not continuing aid to an insurgency that will not win. The United States and Europe both should consider continuing — if not expanding — its humanitarian assistance to ease Turkey’s burden and support Syrian civilians. These efforts will be insufficient, but better than not trying at all.
Aaron Stein is the Director of the Middle East Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.