Idlib is Erdogan's last stand, but the fighting goes way beyond Syria - it’s shaping as another NATO-Russia proxy war
That pesky “Assad regime” simply won’t go away. The new Western narrative on Syria is that the regime is about to “massacre” over 900,000 people fleeing the not really de-escalated zones across the countryside in Idlib and Aleppo provinces.
Context, as always, is absent. The fleeing masses – essentially conservative Sunnis – had been living in these areas under the yoke of myriad incarnations of al-Qaeda in Syria. Either they supported them, did their best to basically survive, or now know for sure the offensive by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is for real, and all jihadi holes, protected or not by human shields, will be bombed.
The most relevant story, once again, is what Sultan Erdogan wants. Ankara and Moscow – partners in the Astana Process that theoretically would pave the way for peace in Syria – are at a crossroads. There were lengthy talks earlier this week, and a crucial phone call between Erdogan and Putin on Friday night. The stalemate prevails – they appear to have only agreed to “intensify contacts”.
Ankara officially “does not accept the [de-escalation] map” put forward by Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stresses it’s the same map: there have been no additional demands. But Erdogan is, impulsively, threatening a remix of “Euphrates Shield” or a “Spring of Peace”, as in invading Idlib “at any moment”.
Moscow, nearly exasperated, is one inch away from reading him the riot act.
Idlib is Ankara’s last stand in terms of having anything to negotiate with when it comes to the peace process in Syria. Erdogan and his advisers, realistically, should know the north and western sides of Aleppo are back under Damascus’ control for good.
The Turkish military are mostly in the countryside east of the Idlib city and in a town called Atarib. The real fighting on the ground in Idlib is not conducted by Turkish soldiers – but over 80% by the militia nebulae of jihadis and proto-jihadis that the West loves to describe as “rebels”; Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, aka al-Qaeda in Syria), the Turkistan Islamic Party and other smaller outfits.
Ankara’s spin is that those “rebel” units will be dissolved once there is a political settlement. But that is nonsense. The Turkish government expects people to believe that one day these tens of thousands of “rebels” are weaponized, and the next they will drop everything, go back home and open a kebab stall.
‘Magnet for terrorists’
Washington, at least on the record, won’t send US troops to help its “NATO ally”. Yet Ankara certainly counts on obtaining intel and more weapons. Erdogan wants Patriot missiles to be installed in Hatay, near the border. If that happens the Pentagon would not deliver them directly: they would come via NATO members.
The geopolitics underlining Idlib is crystal clear. This goes way beyond Ankara versus Damascus; it’s shaping up, ominously, as yet another proxy war between NATO and Russia, driven ultimately by Erdogan.
Even the Pentagon let it slip, inadvertently, that Idlib is a “magnet for terrorists”. But from Washington’s point of view this is still a bargain. Any serious misstep will be welcomed if it is meant to crash the Turkish-Russian entente, which has been painstakingly rebuilt by both sides since the shooting down of a Russian Sukhoi jet in late 2015.
Moscow can see through Erdogan’s folly. The Russians have said loud and clear that any Turkish military adventure will not be tolerated. It’s as if Erdogan, mired in Desperation Row, is oblivious to the fact this would launch everyone into unpredictable Russia vs NATO territory. Erdogan, at least, is receiving red alerts from international relations experts who see the danger of Ankara fighting a proxy war in Syria on behalf of Washington.
The crucial NATO story is actually way more muddled. Diplomatic sources in Brussels say the new NATO offensive is to try to interfere deeply in both Iraq and Jordan as a means to keep the situation in Syria unresolved.
To complicate matters, a new report by the RAND Corporation, entitled Turkey’s Nationalist Course, ruffled countless feathers in both Ankara and Istanbul, spinning the possibility of a new military coup in Turkey after the failed 2016 adventure.
This could be either wishful thinking or a “recommendation” to Trump from the Deep State. Both scenarios are plausible. It’s easy to imagine Erdogan’s serial sleepless nights trying to figure out who his friends really are.
As if this was not messy enough, relations between NATO and Russia remain frosty. A week ago, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with NATO secretary-general, the inconsequential Jens Stoltenberg in Munich. Within the Russia-NATO Council, no military-level communication is in sight, only political. Moscow never ceases to stress the nearly total lack of trust between both sides – which can only lead to dangerous escalations, Syria included.
There’s no other possible solution for Idlib apart from carving some sphere of influence for Turkey near the border acceptable to Erdogan. But then the loser would be Damascus, now in full throttle to recover its territorial sovereignty – whatever it takes. But, then again, the key is what will it take for Russia to finally placate the Turk Hawk?