As the nine-year Syrian civil war enters its final turn, Turkey and Russia, long-time allies in Syria, are on the brink of war over the Syrian province of Idlib.
Both sides are sending stern messages of warning as diplomacy to end the conflict has so far failed to de-escalate the situation.
In September 2018, Turkey, Russia and Iran signed an agreement (also called the Sochi accord) to create a de-escalation zone in Idlib, where violent hostilities were prohibited.
Under the agreement, opposition forces were classified as jihadist and mainstream. Mainstream forces were to pull heavy weapons out of the zone and jihadist groups to vacate it completely. All sides, including Turkey, set up military observation posts.
Claiming that jihadist groups did not leave the zone after more than a year, Syrian government forces launched an offensive in December 2019. The offensive displaced more than 900,000 civilians.
This was followed by the Syrian government forces attacking a Turkish observation post and killing 13 Turkish soldiers.
On February 3, Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan openly defied Russia with a visit to Ukraine, where he pledged US$200 million in military aid.
On February 15, Erdogan warned:
The solution in Idlib is the (Syrian) regime withdrawing to the borders in the agreements. Otherwise, we will handle this before the end of February.
Russia blamed Turkey for failing to meet its obligations and continued to allege Turkey was supplying weapons to what Russia considers terrorist groups.
Erdogan countered these claims by saying Russian and Syrian government forces were “constantly attacking the civilian people, carrying out massacres, spilling blood”.
The greatest fear is an all-out war in Idlib and the inevitable civilian suffering. With more than a million civilians trying to survive in makeshift camps, a United Nations representative has warned of “a real bloodbath”.
Capturing Idlib has immense strategic significance for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, as it is the last opposition stronghold in Syria.
Backed by Russia, Assad has been conducting a successful military offensive against jihadist opposition forces throughout the country to regain and consolidate his power since 2015. He has allowed remnants of these groups to escape to Idlib as a deliberate strategy to gather all opposition forces in one location.
So far, Idlib has been controlled by a range of opposition groups. The most powerful is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which was formed by a large faction that split from the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda in 2017.
Capturing Idlib with the help of Russia and clearing the province of all armed opposition would allow Assad to declare victory and end the civil war.
Erdogan had three main goals in his Syrian involvement. First, prevent the establishment of a Kurdish autonomous region in northern Syria. The Turkish fear such a development could inspire the large Kurdish-populated southeast regions of Turkey to pursue similar ambitions.
The second is to fight a proxy war in Syria through jihadist groups to topple the Assad regime and establish an Islamist government. Erdogan hoped this would extend his political influence in the Middle East and his ambitions to make political Islam dominant would be achieved.
A third aim is to do with maintaining his 18-year rule in Turkey amid political and economic problems. A war in Syria serves to silence critics.
Erdogan calculated he could achieve his goals if he was to have forces in Syria and collaborate with Russia and Iran. The cost was distancing Turkey from the Western block and increasing its international alienation.
Turkey, Russia, Iran and the Syrian government wanted to balance Western and particularly US power in Syria, and if possible to push US out of Syria. Even though their relationships were fragile from the start, these four countries were extremely careful on the diplomatic table and presented a powerful bloc against US involvement in Syria.
The Russian strategy in Syria has been clear from the start – support the Assad government until it regains control over all Syrian territory and defeats all opposition forces. Then Russia can control Turkey so it does not cause serious armed conflict with the Assad regime, while protecting Russian interests in Syria and the greater Middle East.
Russia has invested enormous funds in support of the Assad government. The only way to recoup its costs and have return on investment is if Assad achieves a full victory. Nothing short of capturing Idlib will suffice, even if it means open conflict with Turkey.
Erdogan is caught in a dilemma. He is unable to influence the Syrian opposition parties in Idlib, but he is also not prepared to forsake them. If he withdraws support, they may possibly retaliate with terrorist attacks in Turkey.
Another flood of Syrian refugees is a serious problem for Erdogan. He lost local government elections in 2019 largely due to the Syrian refugee crisis in Turkey.
It is hard to predict what Erdogan will do in Syria. He is either bluffing or is determined to stay the course, even if it means war. He has shown he is not afraid to make bold moves, as demonstrated with his October 2019 military operation in northern Syria and recent military involvement in the Libya conflict.
Bluffing or not, Putin is not backing down and will not hesitate to take on Turkey in Syria. In doing so, Putin will continue to support the Assad forces with equipment, military intelligence, air power and military expertise, rather than being involved in open military conflict. This strategy allows Russia to claim Syria is exercising its legitimate right to defend its sovereign territory against a foreign Turkish military presence.
It is likely Erdogan will avert the risk of war at the last moment. He has involved the US, which has expressed its support for Turkey and hopes to see Assad gone. He has used his NATO membership card and the European fear of another Syrian refugee flood to bring European powers onside at the diplomatic table.
Erdogan will be happy and claim victory if he manages to enlarge the safety zone with a continued Turkish presence there. Russia would only accept this on the condition that all jihadist opposition groups leave Idlib. On these terms, both sides could claim a win from the present dangerous tension.
The likely Russian response is to go all the way in Idlib, regardless of what Turkey does. Any Turkish military success in Syria is highly unlikely. Russia completely controls the airspace and could inflict serious damage on Turkish ground troops.
It is in Russia’s interests to finish this costly civil war once and for all. It is only a matter of time before the Assad government captures Idlib diplomatically or by force.
“Remaining and expanding”. The propaganda tagline of Islamic State (IS) has rung hollow since the collapse of the physical caliphate. But recent developments in northeastern Syria threaten to give it fresh legitimacy.
US President Donald Trump lifted sanctions on Turkey after he announced the Turkish government agreed to a permanent ceasefire in northern Syria.
In a televised speech, he pushed back against criticisms of his decision to remove 1,000 troops from Syria, abandoning their Kurdish allies.
This decision allowed Turkish forces – a hybrid of Turkish military and Free Syrian Army rebels, including jihadi extremists – to surge across the Turkish border and begin intense bombardment of towns and cities liberated from IS.
Just how quickly and how far IS will rise from now remains unclear. One thing that’s certain, however, is that IS and the al-Qaeda movement that spawned it, plan and act for the long-term. They believe in their divine destiny and are prepared to sacrifice anything to achieve it.
In speaking about the resurgence of IS, we risk talking up the IS brand, the very thing it cares so very much about. But the greater risk is underestimating the capacity for reinvention, resilience and enduring appeal of IS.
And complacency and short-sighted politics threaten to lead us to repeat the mistakes of a decade ago that saw a decimated Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) insurgency roar back to life.
In 2006, Sunni tribes in northwestern Iraq killed or arrested the majority of ISI fighters with US support, reducing their strength from many thousands to a few hundred.
But with no backing for the Sunni tribes from the poorly functioning, Shia-dominated government in Baghdad, the outbreak of civil war in Syria, and the draw-down of US troops, ISI launched an insurgency in Syria before rising triumphant as Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
ISIS quickly became the most potent terrorist group in history, drawing more than 40,000 fighters from around the world, and seizing control of north eastern Syria and north western Iraq.
The final defeat of the IS caliphate in north eastern Syria came after five hard years of fighting and 11,000 lives from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), largely composed of members of the Kurdish YPG.
To the US, the SDF fighters were local partners and boots-on-the-ground after multiple false starts and expensive mistakes from allying with rebel groups in the Free Syrian Army. Without this SDF alliance, the IS caliphate could not be toppled.
Donald Trump’s betrayal of the SDF in recent weeks is disastrous on several levels. It ignores the threat IS represents and validates ISIS’s central narrative.
What’s more, it contributes to the very circumstances of neglect, cynical short-term thinking and governance failures that lead to giving the IS insurgency an open pathway for recruiting.
Trump’s reckless move to withdraw 1,000 special forces troops from Syria comes from an impatience to end an 18-year long “Global War on Terrorism” military campaign of unprecedented expense.
This is somewhat understandable. After almost US$6 trillion of US Federal expenditure and two decades of fighting, surely enough is enough.
But the inconvenient truth is IS and al-Qaeda jihadi fighters around the world have increased, in some estimates nearly four-fold, since September 11.
Still, betraying the SDF and pulling out of Syria for small short-term savings risks jeopardising all that has been achieved in defeating the IS caliphate in northwestern Iraq.
IS will never return to its days of power as a physical caliphate, but all the evidence points to it tipping past an inflection point and beginning a long, steady resurgence.
IS has thousands of terrorist fighters still active in the field in northern Iraq. They’re attacking by night and rebuilding strength from disgruntled Sunni communities, as well as having thousands of fighters lying low in Syria.
But in recent months, the tempo of IS attacks has shifted from Iraq to Syria with the previously hidden insurgency reemerging.
As many as 12,000 terrorist fighters, including 2,000 foreigners, are detained in prisons run, at least until this week, by the SDF. Many are located in the border region now being overrun by the Turkish military and the Syrian jihadi it counts as loyal instruments.
Elsewhere, in poorly secured overcrowded camps for internally displaced peoples (IDPs), tens of thousands of women, many fiercely loyal to IS, and children are held in precarious circumstances.
In the Al Hawl camp alone there are more than 60,000 women and children linked to IS, including 11 Australian women and their 44 children, along with 10,000 IDPs.
The IS hardliners not only enforce a reign of terror within the camps, but are in regular communication with IS insurgents. They confidently await their liberation by the IS insurgent forces.
The hope of being freed is neither naive nor remote. Already, hundreds of fighters and IDPs have escaped the prisons and camps since the Turkish offensive began.
From mid-2012 until mid-2013, IS ran an insurgent campaign called “Breaking the Walls”. It saw thousands of hardened senior ISIS leaders, and many other militants who would later join the movement, broken out of half a dozen prisons surrounding Baghdad.
Suicide squads were used to blast holes in prison walls. Heavily armed assault teams moved rapidly through the prisons, blasting open cells and rushing the hundreds of liberated terrorist fighters into tactical four-wheel-drives. They were to be driven away in the desert through the night to rebuild the senior ranks of ISIS.
The liberated fighters were not only more valuable to ISIS after their time in prison, with many switching allegiances to join the movement, they were better educated and more deeply radicalised graduating for what they refer to as their terrorist universities.
It would appear the same cycle is now being repeated in northeastern Syria.
The five-day ceasefire negotiated by US Vice President Mike Pence and Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdogan ends today.
Despite the shaky ceasefire, the risk of economic sanctions from the US and worldwide condemnation, Turkey is likely to stay in Syria for a long time.
The anticipated clash between Turkey and Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian government is also unlikely to eventuate, for three three reasons:
Erdogan’s main aims require the army to stay in Syria for the long term
Assad’s and Erdogan’s goals in northeastern Syria strangely overlap
The coordinating role of Russia in Syria prevents the need for Erdogan and Assad to clash in open warfare.
Even though Turkey has been building its forces on the border for some time, the US-allied Kurdish YPG (which Turkey considers a terrorist group) was caught by surprise. They were busy fighting Islamic State and not expecting the US to allow Turkish forces across the border. Battle-weary YPG forces were no match for the powerful Turkish army.
As a result, Kurdish commanders begged the Trump administration to intervene. The ceasefire deal was struck to allow YPG forces to withdraw beyond what Turkey calls a “safe zone”. Trump declared the ceasefire to be a validation of his erratic Syrian policy.
Turkey’s immediate objective of establishing a 32-kilometre deep and 444-kilometre wide safe zone across its border with Syria will likely be achieved.
Yet establishing this zone is just the precursor to Erdogan’s three primary objectives. Those are to resettle millions of Syrian Arab refugees in northeastern Syria, as a result helping to prevent the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish administration and, finally, to ensure his political survival by maintaining his alliance with the Turkish nationalist party (MHP).
The June 2019 political loss of the important city of Istanbul to the main Turkish opposition party, primarily due to Syrian refugee debates, has been an important trigger for Erdogan to act on his Syria plans.
These objectives require Turkey to remain in Syria at least until the end of the Syrian civil war. This would mean the status of northeastern Syria and its Kurdish population were clearly determined in line with Turkey’s goals. These outcomes could take many years to eventuate.
So, any withdrawal before the primary objectives are met will be seen as a defeat within Turkey. Erdogan wants to enter the 2023 presidential elections claiming victory in Syria.
With the US no longer a serious contender in Syrian politics, Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin are the only leaders capable of stymieing Erdogan’s objectives.
Prior to Turkey’s military intervention, the relationship between the Kurdish leadership and Assad administration was one of mutual avoidance of conflict. Since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, they have never clashed militarily.
The expected outcome of this policy was that the Kurds would have an autonomous region in northeastern Syria and an important role in post-civil war negotiations. Assad had no choice but to agree to this in order to stay in power.
The Turkish intervention opens new possibilities for the Assad government. The speed of the alliance between the YPG and Assad indicates the Syrian government senses an opportunity.
The Kurdish-Assad alliance allows Assad’s forces and administration to enter areas they could not enter before. Assad wasted no time in wedging his forces in the safe zone by seizing the major Kurdish town of Kobani in the middle of the Syrian-Turkish border.
Despite the Kurdish-Assad alliance, resettling Syrian Arab refugees in Kurdish regions will weaken Kurdish claims to the region and suit Assad’s goal of a unified Syria that he totally controls.
There is another immediate benefit for Assad. Idlib is a strategic city in northwestern Syria and the last stronghold of the Syrian opposition to Assad. Resistance groups defeated elsewhere were allowed to gather in Idlib. Careful negotiations took place in the past few years to avoid an all-out bloodbath in Idlib.
Assad will almost certainly ask Turkey to abandon its patronage of Idlib and opposition forces l
ocated there. In return, Assad will allow a temporary Turkish presence in northern Syria.
So, although Kurdish forces signed a deal with Assad, it is highly unlikely this will evolve into active warfare between Turkey and Syria. Instead, the situation will be kept tense – by Assad forces remaining in Kobani – to allow Erdogan and Assad to get what they want.
This is where Russia and Putin come in. Russia is an ally of both the Turkish and Syrian governments. To save face, Erdogan is unlikely to sit in open negotiations with Assad. Negotiations will be done through Putin.
When Putin and Erdogan meet on October 22, the main negotiating points will be to prevent a war between Turkey and the Russian-armed Assad forces. Erdogan will ask the Russian and Assad governments to allow Turkey to stay in the zone it established. In return, Russia will request further concessions on Idlib and perhaps more arms deals similar to the S-400 missile deal.
A deal between Erdogan and Assad suits Russia because it serves the its main objectives in Syria – keep Assad in power to ensure Russian access to the Mediterranean Sea and weaken NATO by moving Turkey away from the alliance.
If the Kurds realise Assad has no intention of fighting Turkey, they may decide to take matters into their own hands and engage in guerrilla warfare with Turkish forces in northern Syria. While this may deliver a blow to Turkish forces, Erdogan will use it to back his claim they are terrorists.
Regardless of what happens, Turkey will stay in northern Syria for the foreseeable future, no matter the cost to both countries.
The eventual winner in Syria is looking to be the Assad government, which is moving to control the entire country just as it did before the 2011 uprising.
The ramifications of Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from the Turkish-Syrian border continues to have a seismic effect on the situation in northern Syria.
Faced with the Turkish invasion of northern Syria, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who controlled the area were forced to make compromises. On October 13, they announced a deal with the Syrian army, which began moving troops towards the Turkish border. A five-day ceasefire was brokered by the US on October 18, during which Turkey agreed to pause its offensive to allow Kurdish forces to withdraw.
For many, the SDF proved itself to be the most effective force in the fight against Islamic State (IS). Turkey, however, considers the SDF as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which it, the US and EU label as a terrorist organisation.
But behind this lies a long history of Turkey denying the very existence of the Kurdish conflict, and the political and cultural rights of its Kurdish population. Understanding this history helps explain why the conflict is so intractable, and the impact it continues to have on Turkey’s foreign policy choices.
The Kurdish conflict cannot be understood without considering the question of power and exclusion. Its origins go back to the mid-19th century when the Ottomans attempted to end the 300-year-old autonomy of the Kurdish principalities in Kurdistan. This struggle for autonomy wasn’t resolved during the rule of the Ottoman era, and when it collapsed, all of the new nation states that eventually emerged – Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran – inherited their own Kurdish conflict.
The Turks and the Kurds fought a successful war of independence together in 1919 against the Allied forces. Nevertheless, when the new Republic of Turkey was established in 1923, Turkish identity was presented as its unifying force, at the expense of the society’s political, social and cultural differences.
Not only was political power further centralised in Ankara, but the domination of the ethnic, Turkish and Sunni majority became the norm. The decision to create a centralised and homogeneous nation state was implemented in a top-down and violent fashion. The seeds of the long-term problems that Turkish and Kurdish communities confront today were created by this decision.
Various Kurdish groups challenged this new social and political order with different revolts, uprisings, and resistance, but these were violently suppressed. Repressive policies of assimilation were later implemented to transform the Kurds into civilised and secular Turks.
The Kurdish conflict laid buried for many years. Then, the most serious challenge to Turkey’s nation state project was initiated by the PKK in 1984, which embraced a political agenda called democratic autonomy. The violent struggle between Ankara and the PKK has resulted in a huge economic and human cost.
Peace talks which began in 2013 with the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan were widely considered to be the best chance for ending the conflict, but these collapsed in 2015. This led to increasing violence in the form of a destructive armed conflict in southeastern Turkey and a wave of bombings, including in Ankara and Istanbul.
The resolution of intractable conflicts is only possible when conflicted parties can confront their past and learn from it. In 2015, amid attempts by Turkish opposition parties to reopen peace negotiations with the Kurds, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insisted: “There is no Kurdish conflict”. Such positioning, which continues today, keeps the political dimension of the conflict in the background.
The state carefully controls what can and cannot be said about the conflict. Typically, words such as “terror” and “traitor” are used to criminalise those who criticise government policy towards the Kurds. A group of academics who signed a petition in 2016 calling for the resumption of peace talks were charged with making “terrorism propaganda”. The non-violent wing of the Kurdish movement – activists, politicians, political parties – has also been criminalised.
Instead of confronting their failure to bring about peace, Turkish political elites have tried to apportion blame elsewhere. Erdoğan, for example, repeatedly refers to an invisible “mastermind” who orchestrates the PKK. Such rhetoric is deployed to play on the collective fear and anxiety about national security felt by parts of Turkish society.
Some have called this the “Sèvres syndrome” – referring to the 1920 Treaty of Sèvres that marked the end of the Ottoman empire and proposed to divide it into small states and occupation zones. The treaty was never implemented, and superseded by the 1923 Lausanne Treaty which recognised the Republic of Turkey.
This syndrome – also referred to as “Sèvres Paranoia” – in essence reflects the collective fear that the Treaty of Sèvres will be revived and that the Turkish state is encircled by enemies who want to divide and weaken the country.
Today, this line of thinking is an integral part of Turkish political life and continues to influence public perception towards the external world. In a 2006 public opinion survey, for example, 78% of participants agreed that “the West wants to divide and break up Turkey like they broke up the Ottoman Empire”.
In this way, the Kurdish conflict has been used to mobilise Turkish society to act against its own collective interest: a peaceful and just society. Policies aimed at managing the conflict have been implemented mostly within a state of emergency, in ways that continue to undermine Turkish democracy. Not only has the tremendous economic and human cost of the conflict become a “normal” part of Turkish life, but the state has also been successful in actively keeping the political dimension of the conflict at bay.
For a long time, Turkey refrained from talking about the Kurdish issue by assuming that it would eventually fade away. But it didn’t and instead, the conflict has become more deeply entrenched. Time will tell whether the Turkish state will ultimately gain or lose by its latest military intervention in Syria. However, what’s clear is that the Kurdish conflict will get more complicated with this latest move, and both the Turkish state and Turkish society will no longer be able to ignore it.
Turkey did not waste much time in launching an attack on Syrian soil just days after US President Donald Trump announced he would withdraw US forces from northern Syria. As this development opens a new chapter in Syria, Turkey maybe unwittingly sinking deeper into that country’s civil war.
This is not the first time president Trump has mentioned withdrawal from Syria – he voiced it in April 2018.
The US government has always been tentative with its Syrian policy, which was openly exploited by Russia in its bid to support the Assad government’s grip on power in the embattled country.
It is also not the first time Turkey has talked about a military presence in Syria. In January 2018, it sent troops to north-western Syria, establishing its control over lands to the west of the Euphrates river. Turkey has increased its military build up on the Syrian border ever since.
The US contained any further Turkish advances by making it clear Turkey was not welcome to the east of the river, especially when the US needed the support of Kurdish forces in ending Islamic States’s presence in Syria.
There are three main reasons Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is eager to send more troops in to northern Syria east of the Euphrates river.
The first is the prospect of free Kurdish states near its borders inspiring the sizeable Kurdish populations in the south east of Turkey to seek similar aspirations. Northern Iraq is slowly moving towards independence. If Kurds in northern Syria were to establish an autonomous region, it would only be a matter of time before the same demands were raised in Turkey.
Fearing this development, Erdogan has pursued an increasingly tough policy on Kurdish political activities in Turkey. The leader of pro-Kurdish party HDP, Selahattin Demirtas, has been in jail for almost three years.
Turkey’s second concern is the reported 3.5 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey since the conflict began in 2011. Although they were initially welcomed with open arms, there is growing discontent in the Turkish media and society, with many calling for their return.
Opposition parties have been critical of the Erdogan government’s inability to effectively manage the refugee crisis, which was one of the key issues that led to Erdogan’s loss in this year’s Istanbul elections.
Erdogan plans to create a safe zone in Northern Syria, establish new settlements within this region and slowly move Arab Syrian refugees back to Syria. This will change the demographics of the region and undermine Kurdish dominance.
Erdogan’s third aim is to make a political investment for future elections. This may be the most important reason, as Erdogan first mentioned a military offensive in Syria soon after his local government election loss in June 2019.
The Turkish leader needs the coalition with MHP, the nationalist party, to maintain his grip on power and enhance his chance of re-election. He needs a war to unify his electorate, please his coalition partner and silence the growing critical voices in the midst of a worsening Turkish economy.
Erdogan made strong hints in August he would send troops to northern Syria against the US-allied YPG, which Turkey considers to be a terrorist group. He was most likely testing international, especially US, reaction. The US responded by offering a joint operation in the region.
It appears Erdogan thought the US involvement was limiting his goals and wasting his time. Perhaps he reasoned the timing was right to make a bold move when Trump was politically weakened by an impeachment inquiry.
It seems Erdogan’s strategy worked. Trump agreed to withdraw from Syria on the condition Turkey took responsibility for handling thousands of IS prisoners and their families in camps.
Trump added a threat to “totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey” if it was to do anything considered “off-limits”. But the move was still a green light for Turkey to send troops to Syria.
Trump’s announcement does not mean the US is pulling out of Syria completely. It’s likely the US will continue to have a presence in eastern Syria to watch developments closely and intervene if the situation deteriorates.
A total pull-out would further weaken Trump. He would not want to risk the already-waning Republican party’s support over concerns about a resurgence of IS in Syria.
Russia seems to be pleased with the developments. Putin knows the US withdrawal means greater Russian influence and shores up the Assad government. Since Erdogan does everything with full Russian endorsement, their close collaboration gives Russia leverage in its political and diplomatic struggle with the NATO.
One possibility is that Turkish forces do not face much resistance. They would then only advance to a limited region, with their stated aim of establishing a safe zone and returning Syrian refugees back to Syria. This may contain the situation without further escalation.
Another possibility is that the US abandoning its protection of the Kurdish YPG forces in northern Syria will have a cascading effects. A sizeable portion of Kurdish civilians may be displaced, and some may flee in advance, fearing the worst.
The Kurdish YPG forces may initially avoid open conflict with the advancing Turkish forces, and look for new alliances in Syria. The most likely candidate for this is Assad, who may see an opportunity to bring the Kurdish populations and regions under his control.
If an Assad-Kurdish partnership eventuates, Turkish forces may be drawn into the war within Syria.
Kurdish populations in Turkey may then become involved, threatening Turkey with what it fears the most – a Kurdish insurrection within its own borders.