Publications of experts CACDS - Southern Caucasus

Benyamin Poghosyan: "What next in Idlib?"

Photo: AFP

In recent weeks, the Syrian province of Idlib has been transformed into the hot spot of the Middle East. There were frantic calls, meetings and visits between Russian, Turkish and Western officials. Some were seeking to de-escalate the situation and prevent direct confrontation between Russian and Turkish troops, others were trying to use this situation and drive a wedge between Moscow and Ankara. There is no need to go deep into the details of the current stalemate. Everything is pretty much clear - Turkey wants to keep Idlib under its control and use it as a tool to secure its influence in post-war Syria, while Russia is interested in completing the active phase of military operations and speeding up the political process. However, Moscow and Ankara are not the only players of the game and others have their stakes too. Meanwhile, the only reliable way to predict developments in Idlib is to break down the key interests of major players in Syria as Idlib is only one part of a much larger game.

Turkey's top priority in Syria remains the prevention of the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish region in Northern Syria by PKK affiliated groups. This is Turkey's ultimate goal and Ankara will do everything possible to achieve it. The second in Ankara's must do list is control over the territories in Northern Syria which Ankara de facto occupies as a result of 2016, 2018 and 2019 military incursions. And these two goals are intertwined as control over Afrin and the security zone created by Turkey in Syria are the key tools in Turkey's arsenal to effectively undermine Kurds' aspirations of autonomy. The control over Idlib is only the third in line for Ankara and therefore Turkey is very cautious not to undermine the first two goals by pursuing control over the province. Meanwhile, Ankara knows very well that Russia has both capacities and capabilities to significantly complicate the realization of its top two tasks. Thus, despite the harsh rhetoric coming out of President Erdogan and the covertly guided boost of anti-Russian sentiments in Turkish society, Ankara is making efforts not to ruin its relations with Moscow and has no intention of returning back to November 2015.

Turkey should also take into account US interests as US troops still deployed in Kurdish regions. Despite all the noise of imminent US withdrawal, most likely Americans will not leave Syria anytime soon. Interestingly, Turkey is seeking to bring the US and NATO into the Idlib problem by asking for their support. Thus Turkey hints to Russia that not all bridges are burnt with the West and Ankara always has the ability to improve relations with its allies. The US is only happy to spoil Russia - Turkey relations, meanwhile, it will not leave Kurds altogether, and the latter are excellent leverage to press Turkey whenever Washington deems it necessary.

Russia's top priority is to complete the active military campaign in Syria and boost the political process. This will give Moscow an opportunity to declare the final victory in Syria. It will be used both for domestic purposes to boost President Putin's image as a victorious leader who is able to finish wars within short periods of time while helpless Americans have been bogged down in Afghanistan for almost two decades. Simultaneously, the new impetus in the political process will increase Russia's role as an indispensable power broker in Syria. Idlib's military push has already resulted in additional refugee flows that could be used as a tool to re-invoke Europeans' mass migration horrors and boost right wing populist, Euro-skeptic forces thus harming EU cohesion. Moscow is also keen not to ruin its relations with Ankara as Russia - Turkey's cooperation plays well in Russia's strategy of driving wedges in the US - Turkey and NATO - Turkey's relations and damaging the cohesion of the North Atlantic Alliance. However, the Kremlin is aware that Ankara's top priority in Syria is not an idlib but Kurdish issue, where Turkey needs Moscow support.

Idlib touches interests of another player in the region - Iran. Tehran's key priority is not to lose its ground in Syria and keep operational Iran - Iraq - Syria - Lebanon land corridor. Iran also uses its influence in Syria as a leverage in its strategic rivalry with Israel. All Syrian chessboard players understand that Iran will never completely leave Syria, at least as far as there is no regime change there. Meanwhile, Tehran may restrict its presence along the Syria - Israel border and get something from Tel Aviv. Government forces' control over Idlib means more Iranian influenza in the province. Thus, Tehran is interested in advancing Syrian forces deeper into Idlib. Simultaneously, Russia - Turkey disagreements reduce the possibility of joint Moscow - Ankara actions against Iranian influenza in Syria. Tehran, meanwhile, is not interested in seeing the growing Turkey - US or Turkey - NATO cooperation due to the current situation. Thus, the best scenario for Tehran is some sort of Russia - Turkey deal that will keep Syrian government forces in Idlib controlling the territories taken since January 2020, but at the same time will keep some parts of Idlib province under de facto Turkish control.

This scenario may satisfy Russia too, as it will allow government forces to fortify their new positions in Idlib. Simultaneously, Russia may use the possibility of any further advancement of Syrian forces as leverage against Turkey. Definitely, Turkey would like to see all government forces leaving Idlib province, but Ankara understands that it will be extremely difficult to achieve such an outcome. Meanwhile, the de facto Turkish control over Idlib city and some parts of the province is definitely not the worst case scenario for Ankara.

Thus, most likely, in a short term perspective we will see some accommodation between Russia and Turkey over Idlib which will keep parts of the province under Turkish control. Meanwhile, it's less likely that government forces will leave all territories conquered in the last two months. However, any solution reached during recent Russia - Turkey consultations will be temporary. In the long term perspective the realistic scenario is the gradual increase of government control over Idlib. At the end of the day, Turkey will be ready to leave Idlib but keep Afrin and security zone territories occupied as a result of 2016 and 2019 military operations. Despite all the statements that the territorial integrity of Syria should be restored, most likely Turkish forces will control parts of Northwestern and Northeastern Syria for years not decades to come.

Dr. Benyamin Poghosyan, Chairman, Center for Political and Economic Strategic Studies