Ankara is desperate to avoid an offensive in north Syria, but diplomats tell MEE not even the promise of rooting out HTS may be enough
ANKARA - Turkish diplomats have told Middle East Eye that Turkey's role in maintaining the de-escalation zone in northern Syria's Idlib province will not prevent a major Russian-backed offensive to clear out all armed groups in the area.
The diplomats spoke ahead of a meeting in Moscow on Friday between Turkey and Russia's foreign ministers to iron out differences over the fate of the last region in Syria still in the hands of opposition forces.
A high-level envoy, who regularly attends meetings between Turkey and Russia on all levels, told MEE that the Russians were "clarioning that they are coming to Idlib. They are saying out loud, clearly, that this offensive is happening soon."
“We are trying to work on a diplomatic level to solve the crisis in Idlib. We don’t want any big fights in [Idlib] city. We remind them we have the monitoring posts there and it shouldn’t be like the previous de-escalation zones,” he said.
A Turkish military convoy in Idlib, north Syria (AFP)
A recent uptick in bombing has increased fears that a major offensive on the rebel-held province will soon be under way, as President Bashar al-Assad's government looks to retake all territory it lost to opposition forces since the 2011 uprising began.
Turkey opposes a large-scale offensive in Idlib, fearing an attack could not only cost thousands of lives but prompt a new wave of displacement across the Turkish border. Turkey already hosts some three million Syrian refugees.
Ankara also backs some rebel groups in the province and has established 12 monitoring posts there as part of a de-escalation agreement established last year by Iran, Russia and Turkey following talks in the Kazakh capital Astana.
Differences in opinion between Ankara and Moscow came to light on Friday as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, stood beside his Turkish counterpart, accused the former al-Qaeda affiliate Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and other "terrorist groups" of attacking the Syrian army and Russia’s Hmeimim air base in neighbouring Latakia.
For his part, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu noted Russia's frustration over its Syrian air base.
But Turkey is asking Russia for time to isolate HTS - which is commonly seen as an extremist group and used by Russia as reasoning to attack rebel-held areas - from other rebel groups and root it out of Idlib.
“It’s important to deactivate all the terrorist groups since they are posing a threat to Turkey on our border. But a military solution would be a disaster not only for Idlib but for all Syria," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in a joint news conference with Lavrov in Moscow on Friday.
Russia sees a cloud over Idlib, a cloud of terrorists, they don’t think any armed group in the city is different than others, they consider them all terrorists
- Turkish diplomat
A Russian embassy tweet quoting Lavrov as saying “we have agreed that our priority is the separation of armed groups, who are ready for cooperation to solve the crisis, from Nusra [HTS]” may give the impression that Turkish diplomacy is having some cut-through in the Kremlin.
With the backing of Turkey, various rebel groups have reportedly merged under an umbrella organisation called the National Front for Liberation to fight against HTS.
Recent developments seem to have rattled HTS's leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, who appeared in a video earlier this week saying Turkey was not a reliable ally against the Syrian government and its monitoring posts could not be relied on "because the political positions might change at any moment".
However, opposition sources in Idlib told MEE that, as of now, they are not aware of any plans to fight against HTS or lay down arms and evacuate Idlib.
Meanwhile, another Turkish diplomat, who was not in recent meetings between Turkey and Russia but has been working on Syria for the last seven years, said that Moscow sees all the armed groups as terrorists.
“Russia sees a cloud over Idlib, a cloud of terrorists. They don’t think any armed group in the city is different than others, they consider them all terrorists. That’s why Turkey is negotiating with some of the groups to convince them to drop their weapons, but it’s not that easy as each group has power and earns revenues in their areas of control,” he said.
“What if Russia conducts a large-scale operation in Idlib [city] and then decides to move forward to the north? What will happen to millions of people and the opposition groups there? We have to be prepared for such a scenario.”
Last week Lavrov addressed a group of 250 Turkish ambassadors in a closed-door meeting, answering several questions from the floor. In his speech he emphasised that Russia’s plan was to clear Syria of all opposition groups, including the ones backed by Turkey.
According to an anonymous source who was in the meeting, a Turkish diplomat asked Lavrov what his vision of the areas controlled by Turkish-backed rebels was.
“We consider all armed groups except the Syrian army as illegal, and they should all leave Syrian soil,” said Lavrov.
Perhaps tellingly, no one in the room was moved to contradict him.
Russian and Syrian forces stand guard as civilians enter the Abu Duhur crossing on the eastern edge of Idlib province (AFP)
According to the second diplomat Turkey will not react to a Russian operation in Idlib unless there was a threat to "national security".
"And if any terror groups point their guns towards Turkey, it would pose a threat to our national security," he explained.
What if Russia conducts a large-scale operation in Idlib [city] and then decides to move forward to the north? What will happen to millions of people and the opposition groups there? We have to be prepared for such a scenario
- Turkish diplomat
The diplomat said he has direct contact with civilians in parts of northern Aleppo province currently controlled by Turkey, who say they are concerned about Russia and the Syrian government’s next step since they have no other place to go. Turkey has closed its border to Syrian refugees.
“They don’t believe Russia will stop after Idlib, but it will fight against large and small opposition groups that are left. They believe the war won’t be finished before Russia and the regime hunt all of them down.”
Such a bleak picture isn't shared by all, however.
A third diplomat, who was also in some of the meetings between Russia, Iran and Turkey, said he didn't see the future of the opposition as that hopeless.
“Russia and Iran have already created different areas of influence in Syria, and probably they will keep it that way," he explained.
"Russia will stay in the south to make Israel and its friends in the Gulf happy, Iran will stay on the Iraqi border. We also see the US’s hand on the PYD, which controls nearly a quarter of the country," he said, referring to the Kurdish Democratic Union Party.
When it comes to the areas of influence, the Turkish diplomat says the main reasoning behind Russia’s plans for an operation in Idlib is not the attacks on its Hmeimim air base, which was only of secondary importance, but the threat that Iran may fill the void in Syria's north if Russia does not.
“Russia doesn’t want to leave Idlib to Iran and Assad is taking advantage of this struggle between Moscow and Tehran to start the operation soon," he said.
"Also, keep the 7 September summit in mind, when Iranian, Russian and Turkish presidents will meet in Tehran. All of them would like to strengthen their hands before they go there.”
Idlib is not the only de-escalation zone to come under attack or be under threat of invasion.
Since their conception in May 2017, three of the four have been conquered by pro-Syrian government forces: Eastern Ghouta, Daraa province and northern Homs.
According to the second diplomat, it is only a matter of time before Idlib, the fourth de-escalation zone, is in Russia and the Syrian government's sights. Moscow and Damascus have merely been biding their time, he said.
“HTS and other armed groups were controlled by Turkey in Idlib under the guise of a ceasefire. That helped Russia and the regime to fight against other opposition groups in other de-escalation zones in Syria, one by one, and now their last target is Idlib," the diplomat said.
"They don’t see any difference between the HTS and other armed groups, and that was only their tactic to keep them under Turkey's control until they are able to focus on Idlib.”