In an interview with the Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, Mostafa Najafi described Idlib’s field and operational conditions complicated and dangerous for Syrian and Turkish forces and said: On the one hand, a large number of Turkish-backed forces, including Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahar al-Sham, and the Free Army have formed defensive lines in the province to block the advance of the Syrian army: Forces who are led directly by Ankara and its advisers. On the other hand, the Syrian army forces with Russian air support and the Resistance forces are tightening the siege of Idlib more and more.
Noting that the change in the balance of power in the field to Turkey’s disadvantage has sparked offensive reactions from Ankara, he said: “Turkey seeks to push back Russia and Syria and restore its lost balance by escalating the crisis and tension.”
Syrian army forces are increasingly advancing into Idlib and north of these areas towards the Turkish border and this has complicated the situation for Ankara.
Siege of Terrorists in Idlib Tightening
Najafi emphasized that Damascus has a serious resolve for the liberation of Idlib and Turkey seeks to maintain the status quo of the last terrorist stronghold in Syria. Russia, on the other hand, has concluded that the operation to liberate Idlib or field advances to put pressure on Ankara is inevitable. Therefore, it is expected that if Turkey fails to fulfil its obligations under the Sochi Agreement, the siege of terrorists and Turkish-backed forces in Idlib will further tighten in the coming days and weeks.
The expert on the Middle East affairs explaining that the two sides trade accusations over violating the Astana and Sochi Agreements, said: “The content of the Sochi Agreement as the main accord on Idlib is very clear. But Turkey by making different readings of the deal seeks to disregard the terms of the agreement for clear reasons and continue to support armed groups in the province. Ankara has clearly violated its basic obligations under the Sochi Agreement.”
He said that the most important factor in violating the Sochi Agreement and other accords between the three countries was the repeated attacks by terrorist groups and their failure to withdraw from the areas designated in the agreements. He said under the Sochi Agreement a tension relief zone with an area of 15-20 km was supposed to be designated by October 15 last year, but the failure of some Turkish-led terrorist groups in the province delayed the plan. This was a breach of the agreement on Idlib. On the other hand, big amounts of military equipment and supplies have been shipped from Turkey to Idlib in recent days and months, a clear breach of the Sochi Agreement.
Turkey’s Strategic Confusion in Idlib
Najafi reiterated: Turkey is in a state of unprecedented strategic confusion in Syria, especially in Idlib: A confusion that can lead to a strategic headache for Ankara. Erdogan has clashed with almost all the actors involved in the Syrian crisis in recent years.
He said Ankara has no friends and allies except the terrorist and armed groups in Syria. They have worked to maximize tensions in Syria instead of minimizing it. They have launched three major military operations on Syrian soil against the Kurds since December 2016. Despite various agreements between Turkey on the one hand and Iran and Russia on the other, Ankara did not show a serious resolve to remove disputes and the result is what we are now witnessing in Idlib.
Strategic Confusion Turns to Trouble for Erdogan in Syria
“Turkey does not have a clear roadmap and plan to get out of this situation,” the Middle East affairs expert said, adding that Turkey sees itself in the “Gray Zone” or the state of strategic ambiguity and confusion. This could have unexpected and uncontrollable consequences for Erdogan and the AKP. In fact, this strategic confusion can become a headache or strategic problem for Erdogan in Syria.
Continuing Tensions Not in Turkey’s Interest
Najafi noted that continuing tensions in Idlib and the elimination of Turkish troops are not in Ankara’s interest and that the decision-makers of the Turkish government and army were well aware of this. He said Erdogan intends to continue the dangerous military game in Syria to force the Russians and the Syrian army to withdraw from their field and political positions. Any retreat against Erdogan could pose many difficulties for Russia, Iran and Syria.
Turkey Looking to Change Game in Idlib
Asked what tools Turkey has to change the game in its favour and how it can get out of this strategic confusion and achieve a temporary gain in Idlib, he said: Turkey needs the game changer more than anything. One of the tools available in Turkey to change the game is the use of refugee and immigrant cards. That is why, after the Russian and Syrian attacks, Ankara opened its borders to Europe to put pressure on Europe to support Ankara. In this way, Turkey seeks the international community’s forced support for itself in the Idlib conflict.
The Middle East affairs analyst cited Turkey’s second tool winning the US support and added: Turks have highly increased their level of contacts with US officials. Erdogan once again made a phone call to Trump and urged him to support Ankara on Idlib.
He added: Turkey’s third game-changer is NATO. They have called for an immediate NATO summit in support of Turkey against Russian attacks. NATO also held an emergency meeting, which, of course, did not seem to be of much use to Turkey. These are tools that Turkey has sought to change the playing field and balance of power. However, it is predictable that these tools will not help Erdogan much.
“On the one hand, reopening the borders could ignite the tensions between Turkey and Europe,” Najafi said. On the other hand, Trump now has little interest in directly intervening in the Idlib crisis, as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has explicitly acknowledged. Meantime, NATO intervention in Syria is also unlikely because of its implications.
Najafi emphasized that if Turkey fails to fix its strategic confusion in Idlib and gain a field victory by using these tools, there would be no other way for Erdogan but to negotiate. Experience has shown that whenever the balance in the field changes to the detriment of Ankara, it will try to restore that balance by diplomatic and political means. Therefore, the start of negotiations with Russia with a new form and agenda is not out of the question.