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ANALYSIS: Turkey's Idlib adventure a last gasp bid to secure influence

What was billed as a campaign to oust al-Qaeda is so much more - Turkey knows it must act fast to impose its agenda before the war ends
A demonstration in support of the Turkish army's Idlib operation near Reyhanli at the Turkey-Syria border on 10 October 2017 (AFP)

It has been billed as a campaign to oust al-Qaeda-linked militants from Syria. But delve deeper, and it becomes apparent Turkey's intervention in Idlib is an attempt to establish a sphere of influence in Syria before it's too late, analysts say.

The push also heralds Ankara's acceptance - nearly six years after calling for him to quit - of Bashar al-Assad prevailing and a conflict that has turned into a realpolitik scramble.

On Saturday, after months of Turkish military build-up around Idlib and word in state-run media that an intervention was coming, Turkey's president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced the start of the campaign against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). 

'Turkey wants to impose its physical presence in that area before anyone else does'

-Haid Haid, Chatham House research fellow

Since 2014, rebel forces have controlled the northern Syrian province which HTS, a rebrand of the Nusra Front, took over in late July.

"Today there's a serious operation in Idlib and it will continue, because we have to extend a hand to our brothers in Idlib and to our brothers who arrived in Idlib," Erdogan said in a televised speech.

Turkey, he added, would not permit the establishment of a “terror corridor” along its border and the operation, led by Turkish-backed Syrian rebel forces, will “allow us new initiatives on this issue”.

Four days into the mission, there have been reports of HTS militants opening fire on Turkish forces at a wall along the border between Turkey and Idlib, but otherwise little blood has been shed.

That’s because, say analysts, at least initially, this won’t be so much a battle as a win-win deal: HTS will maintain a presence, if diminished, in northern Syria; Turkey, in turn, will stop Syrian Kurds from establishing a corridor to the Mediterranean by isolating their Afrin enclave.

“So far, according to different sources - Syrians on the ground and also observers - they are saying that there is some kind of understanding between HTS and the Turkish forces about where to go, what to do and who will be there,” said Haid Haid, a journalist and Chatham House consulting research fellow.

“Turkey wants to impose its physical presence in that area before anyone else does,” said Haid. “Moving now to create buffer zones that will contain HTS will allow them to basically operate in areas around Afrin without objection from Russia or US or the international community, which might have been a result of the recent Astana Six agreement.”

Defect or fight?

But the problem is what happens once this first chapter is over and here Turkey finds itself in a tough spot.

Can it convince HTS to limit its activities and isolate itself in a pocket? And if it is able to do that - which is in doubt - will that be enough to stave off Russian or Syrian government air strikes on the militant group - and the waves of refugees that would come with them? 

Residents from Aleppo flee fighting for Turkey in February 2016 (AFP)
Galip Dalay, a researcher director at the Sharq Forum and senior associate at Al Jazeera Centre for Studies, said some portion of HTS may decide to join local civilian groups or defect to others rather than fight on. Others may not. 

"Even in this scenario, the danger and the level of threat will be significantly reduced. Turkey believes that it is capable of doing this without risking a major confrontation," he said.

But Aymenn al-Tamimi, a research fellow with the US-based Middle East Forum, is less convinced. Defections in his mind are very unlikely and, if it then comes down to a fight, relying on Turkish-backed FSA rebels, as Ankara did during its Euphrates Shield campaign last year, will not suffice.

"If you are militarily going to intervene against HTS, there will have to be Turkish ground forces who participate in that, not just having these Euphrates Shield guys who, when it did actually come to military fighting – when they really had to take on IS – that took a long time and it wasn't an easy fight," he said.

There are also local dynamics that could complicate such a fight. Over the past week, HTS released a statement criticising rebel fighters who would work with Turkey to fight HTS, highlighting that their activities would be backed by Russian air support. 

Turkish-backed Syrian rebels walk along the Turkish-Syria border in Idlib province this week (AFP)
"There is already a sense of these FSA/Euphrates Shield guys being unpopular. So if HTS tries to make out that they are going to be backed by Russia air support to take on HTS, they think it is a way to further discredit them and get as many civilians as possible to take their side."

A friend living in a Druze area in Idlib recently told Tamimi that while he had been forced to convert to Sunni Islam under HTS rule, he would still prefer the group to rule his area over the FSA.

"He said although HTS oppresses us, the security situation is much better," Tamimi said.

He said although HTS oppresses us, the security situation is much better

-Aymenn al-Tamimi's friend in Idlib

And with HTS still in play - even in a reduced capacity - some say further attacks will be inevitable.

“The more HTS pulls back, the closer they are to Assad’s troops – and Assad and Russia will come for them eventually from the south,” Josh Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma’s Centre for Middle East Studies, told Al Jazeera’s Inside Story on Sunday.

“That will be the final negotiation – will they stand and die as Islamic State [did] or will they work out a deal with Turkey in order to flee into Turkey?"

Why now?

The new campaign also comes less than a month after the sixth round of Astana talks in which Russia, Turkey and Iran decided to establish a de-escalations zone in Idlib, among several other locations.

Although Turkey has clearly been gearing up for months for a second intervention to follow on Euphrates Shield, it is striking now to get in before anyone else can, analysts say.

'Are the Kurds going to reach the Mediterranean or not? This is one of Turkey's worst fears'

- Galip Dalay, Sharq Forum researcher and Al Jazeera Centre for Studies senior associate

"Turkey sees itself as a regional superpower. If Iran has a stake in Syria, why not Turkey?" said Simon Waldman, a visiting research fellow at King's College London and a Carter IPC fellow at the Istanbul Policy Centre. "Russia has an imperial background, but what about Turkey? It does too."

Despite rumours over several months that Turkey would invade Afrin, Ankara has held back because, given the Russian presence in the area, it would mean fighting Moscow.

So Turkey, he said, has had to find another way to carve a sphere of influence and guarantee its role in shaping the future of the region.

"It's 100 years after Sykes-Picot, but now it's not the British and the French. It's the Russians, Iranians and the Turks," Waldman said.

In 2012, a Kurdish man guards a checkpoint on the road to Afrin (AFP)
One major concern for Ankara was, with the fight against the Islamic State ending, the US and Russia would target HTS, bombing indiscriminately right at Turkey's border, sending millions of refugees fleeing.

But equally, whenever the US has intervened in Syria, he said, Kurds have expanded their territory.

"The fear was, even though Idlib is quite a large province - we are talking about 2.5 million people - we can't prevent the US or Russia going with the Kurds down the road. They might set up an administration," Dalay said. "Are the Kurds going to reach the Mediterranean or not? This is one of Turkey's worst fears."

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Isolating Afrin won't be the only benefit for Turkey: maintaining the HTS as a viable force, says Haid, could provide Turkey with leverage that could be used to press the Syrian government, particularly if, as some analysts predict, Turkish negotiations with Assad could come soon.

But Dalay says even if such negotiations happen, Turkey would already have achieved its goals with this intervention, one which reflects its acceptance that that Syrian Kurdish control can only be limited, not eliminated.

"We stop territorial continguity of the SDF. Now we are in Idlib. Ok, what can Assad give to you?" he said.

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