Joseph Daher | Professor at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, part-time affiliate professor at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy, where he works on the Wartime and Post-Conflict in Syria Project.
Turkey has sent military reinforcements to Idlib Governorate and warned the Syrian regime’s armed forces that “all options are on the table” to stem their advance and push them to withdraw. However, Turkey is in a difficult position, even as it wants to prevent a new arrival of refugees to Turkey from Idlib.
The Turkish army would have a clear military advantage in any large-scale confrontation with the Syrian regime, but it wants to avoid increasing tensions and jeopardizing its relations with Russia. Moscow is the only actor capable of curbing Damascus’ potentially hostile actions against Turkish interests at any time. Turkey also wants to preserve its close relations with Russia because of Ankara’s deepening international isolation, especially with regard to Western and Middle Eastern powers, due to its Libyan venture and energy rivalry over hydrocarbon resources in the eastern Mediterranean. In addition, earlier this year the presidents of Turkey and Russia formally launched the TurkStream pipeline that will carry Russian natural gas to southern Europe through Turkey. Maintaining the relationship with Moscow is the main issue for Ankara.
The Syrian regime’s forces, backed by Russia, have just retaken Saraqeb, which is of strategic importance as it lies at the junction of the M5 and M4 highways that connect Aleppo to the capital Damascus and to Lataqia, respectively. Following this, the most probable scenario is that a form of truce will be negotiated by Turkey and Russia. Regime forces will then wait several weeks, or even months, before resuming a new offensive in Idlib, once again with Russian support.
Turkey’s calls for a new Sochi agreement with Russia and Iran, as it is losing ground after the regime’s conquest of new territories in Idlib, reflect in some ways the limited options it has in Syria.
Bissane al-Sheikh | Journalist, writer, and media consultant based in Istanbul, former reporter at the Al-Hayat newspaper
“There is no consensus over Idlib,” said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoglu to those hoping for results from a three-hour meeting with Russian officials that was supposed to revive the stalled political track. But why would anyone expect the Syrian regime’s military offensive in Idlib to stop at this stage, if Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan himself gave Syrian regime forces until the end of February to withdraw to the limits of the deescalation zone?
It is true that Erdoğan has warned the Syrian forces that “the Turkish army will do whatever it has to do in order to force them to withdraw” and that “the [Turkish] air and ground forces will carry out military operations if necessary in all areas of our operations in Idlib.” However, in practice none of this has happened. Rather, Turkey has prevented Turkish-backed Syrian factions from fighting or providing any support to villages and towns trying to resist the Syrian army’s attacks. Ironically, this has coincided with the announcement by Ankara that it would send Syrian fighters to Libya, which strengthens the assumption that Turkey has abandoned its role of “guarantor” in Syria in favor of being a “conqueror” in Libya.
The fact is that Idlib, which was once a strong negotiating card in the hands of Turkey, has exhausted its validity and become a huge burden. Turkey has lost its interest in the area except for a border strip where it can use the estimated 1.7 million displaced people as a bargaining chip to be used in future negotiations.
Assaad al-Achi | Executive director of Baytna Syria, a civil society support organization
It’s very hard to tell how far Turkey is willing to go in Idlib. It has deployed more than 5,000 soldiers in the governorate over the past month. Yet its response to the killing of its soldiers by the Syrian regime’s artillery has been minimal. Negotiations with Russia have not stopped, but have failed so far to produce any lasting cessation of hostilities. Therefore, Turkey is in a conundrum. It wants to avoid at all costs a humanitarian disaster on its southwestern border, but at the same time it doesn’t want to ruin its relationship with Russia.
Without clear support from NATO, it is very hard to imagine that Turkey will be willing to go far in Idlib. Its strategic interests lie elsewhere, particularly in northeastern Syria, where it seeks to prevent any advances by the People’s Protection Units, an offshoot of Turkey’s sworn enemy and most imminent national security threat, the Kurdistan Workers Party. However, should NATO decide to counter the Syrian and Russian offensive in Idlib, Turkey would be willing to enforce a “safe zone” there to protect civilians and avoid any risks of a refugee wave entering into southern Turkey.
Kheder Khaddour | Nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, focusing on Syria
Idlib has become a central front in the Syrian war. The area includes extremist groups who believe they are waging holy war, as well as rebels with very local agendas focused on protecting their land and communities. For international aid groups and the local population, the region is the last stronghold outside the Assad regime’s control.
For Turkey, meanwhile, Idlib has come to be viewed as a sort of borderland. After trying to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad militarily, Ankara had to change direction following the Russian military intervention in 2015. Having realized that Russia now had a presence on Turkey’s border with Syria, Ankara altered its approach to one primarily of border protection.
Now the Syrian military—with Russian support and Turkish acquiescence—will reconnect the urban areas of Syria’s northwest—Ma‘rat al-Na‘man, Saraqeb, Idlib city, and Jisr al-Shughour—with coastal regions and Syria’s south. By doing so, Turkey’s talk of creating a 30-kilometer “safe zone” inside Syria will become a de facto reality. But rather than being a safe zone, it will actually serve more as an extended border zone for Turkey.