Turkey Seeks to Expand its Influence in Syria

Main Image Credit Turkish troops are given a hero's welcome on the outskirts of Idlib. Courtesy of Depo Photos/ABACAPRESS.COM

Ankara is using its military presence in northern Syria to prevent Kurdish independence and have more of a say in a post-Assad future of the country. The problem is, its main allies, Iran and Russia, are pro-Assad.

After its first ground operation in northern Syria, Turkey says it will establish a secure humanitarian corridor in Syria in consultation with Russia and Iran. The moves come after talks between the three countries in the Kazakh capital Astana.

Turkey and Russia will now deploy forces to observe the de-escalation of fighting inside Syria, with the Turks already inside Idlib since 8 October.

Ankara, fearing another refugee crisis it could not handle, is aiming to protect civilians in the Idlib region. It also wants to expand the ‘strategic depth’ in Syria and isolate the Kurdish ‘People’s Protection Units’ militia in western Syria. Ankara is also seeking to increase Turkey’s leverage in Syria as a ‘guarantor power’ in line with the Astana Process.

The establishment of a de-confliction zone in the larger Idlib province was agreed after the area was taken over on 20 July by the former Islamist Al-Nusra front, now the main power in the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) formation. The region was previously disputed with rival Islamists Ahrar Al-Sham.

Turkish experts with close links to the military’s leadership in Ankara do not believe in a large-scale operation in Idlib such as the August 2016 Euphrates Shield near Aleppo. Throughout that operation against Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS), Turkey partnered with the anti-Assad regime Free Syrian Army (FSA), adding its own fire power with armoured vehicles, tanks, special forces and airstrikes. The operation ended with the conquest of Al-Bab.

Turkey wants to present its Idlib operation as a peacekeeping and observer mission and will probably gradually increase its presence there. The development of Turkey's role on the ground depends, among other things, on whether or not Ankara will negotiate and maintain an agreement with HTS.

Turkish observers in the region cooperated with HTS in Darat Izzah, their first attempt to monitor the ceasefire. It seems Turkey could even achieve a non-aggression deal with HTS, but this could be complicated since the militants openly reject any involvement of FSA factions which participated in Euphrates Shield.

Ideally, Ankara would like to see HTS split with ‘pragmatists’ breaking away from ‘idealists’, thus reducing its strength. However, the idealists might wage a guerrilla war against Turkey’s allies.

A serious confrontation is in neither in Turkey’s nor the HTS’s interests as it could lead to a massive escalation of violence that would hurt both parties. However, if the HTS opts for conflict, Turkey would be hurt endangering the entire Idlib de-escalation mission.

However, Ankara’s allies Russia and Iran have yet to approve this security.

Ankara strives for a solution similar to that achieved in the Al-Bab, where Turkey operates a de facto safe zone and pursues state-building activities that will create an alternative to the Assad regime and support the self-determination of pro-Turkish groups in Syria.

Turkish policymakers know that if Bashar Al-Assad retook Idlib, he would be able to dictate any terms on a peace settlement in Syria to the detriment of Ankara.

Following the Darat Izzah operation, Ankara is now looking to expand its involvement. On 25 September, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said that Turkey was working with Iran and Russia to establish another de-escalation zone in Afrin in northern Syria.

Afrin is currently controlled by the US-backed, YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which is pushing for greater autonomy.

Turkish policymakers know that if Bashar Al-Assad retook Idlib, he would be able to dictate any terms on a peace settlement in Syria to the detriment of Ankara

From Darat Izzah, Turkey will be able to monitor the activities of Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK)-affiliated YPG militia. If Ankara succeeds in persuading Russia to withdraw its military police from the Tel Rifaat region, a path would be paved for another military operation to establish a link between Idlib and the Euphrates Shield region to cut off the YPG’s access to Afrin.

Turkey sees the YPG as a threat to its national security due to its affiliation with the PKK, internationally designated as a terrorist organisation.

All this means that Turkey is a valuable partner for Russia and Iran, which support Assad. Ankara is the most important rebel supporter and can play a key role in separating the armed opposition from Al-Qa’ida-affiliated jihadists, which could significantly simplify the fighting in Idlib.

In a broader sense, the Astana Process and the newly established Joint Coordination Centre are crucial for cooperation between Russia, Iran and Turkey. However, they are not the only ones. Cooperation between all three countries has intensified throughout the recent months, allowing for more frequent and direct interaction relating to the Syrian conflict.

Ankara wants at all costs to retain its geopolitical influence in Syria during the forthcoming political transition period and is therefore prepared to take military risks in accordance with the Astana talks. 

Ali Özkök works as a journalist in Germany specialising on the Eurasian region, and especially developments in the Turkic states and Middle Eastern Arab societies.

Ömer Özkizilcik is an analyst at the Middle East Foundation in Ankara and is also an editor of Suriye Gündemi, a Turkish website that focuses on military and political events in Syria.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors’, and do not reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.

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