Is Erdoğan’s operation a cover to move against Kurds in northwest Syria?
UPDATE 0800 GMT: Claimed footage of Turkish mortars falling upon camps inside Syria, close to Deir Hassan, with displaced Syrians fleeing the area:
Turkish mortars falling upon refugee camps on the Turkish-Syrian border close to Deir Hassan and refugees are fleeing the area: pic.twitter.com/f1jyPFgM78
— UmawiSupremacist (@AbuHumamAlUmawi) October 8, 2017
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has proclaimed the imminent start of a “landmark operation” in Idlib Province in northwest Syria, but questions have already arisen about the claimed offensive against the jihadist bloc Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
Erdoğan told his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) on Saturday that Free Syrian rebels will move against HTS, which has taken control of parts of Idlib this summer in gains from the rebel faction Ahrar al-Sham. He presented the operation as a natural extension of Turkey’s intervention in August 2016, alongside the FSA, to take territory from the Islamic State in northern Aleppo Province, adjacent to Idlib.
However, Erdoğan set an immediate limit on the offensive, saying there would be no Turkish ground involvement: “The FSA is currently carrying out the operation and our soldiers are not there.”
Erdoğan and the FSA also differed sharply over Russia’s involvement in the operations. The Turkish President said Moscow — which, as an essential ally of the Assad regime, had been a foe of Turkey over Syria until their reconciliation until summer 2016 — will provide aerial support.
But Mustafa Sejari, a senior official in the Liwa al-Mutasim faction, responded, “As for the Russians, they will not have a role in the areas of our control at all. The role of the Russians is limited to areas under regime control.”
Turkey joined Russia and Iran in announcing a “de-escalation zone” for Idlib last month. The three countries said Turkish personnel would deploy as monitors in the province, with Russians and Iranians overseeing the ceasefire on the borders.
However, Russia and the Assad regime soon put the arrangement in doubt as they renewed bombing across the province, killing more than 200 people and targeting infrastructure and hospitals.
Erdoğan did not refer to the strikes in his Saturday statement.
Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu tried a different focus in his Saturday remarks, portraying any Idlib operations as support for a political process to stabilize Idlib and the Syrian conflict.
Referring to talks in the Kazakh capital Astana, where the de-escalation zone was declared, and in Geneva, Çavuşoğlu said, “Astana is a platform which in a way will stop clashes to boost confidence-building measures but our main goal is to revive the Geneva process.”
He was far more cautious than Erdoğan about the scope of military action, saying intelligence units and troops will evaluate the situation on the ground and will take steps accordingly.
Meanwhile, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham avoided any reference to Ankara and focused on the Free Syrian Army in its response. It said warned that Idlib would “not be a picnic” for the FSA: “The lions of jihad and martyrdom are waiting to pounce.”
Cover for an Attack on Kurdish Afrin?
Some observers — and the pro-Erdoğan Daily Sabah — saw the President’s speech more in terms of a push against the Kurdish canton of Afrin in northwest Syria.
Ankara has vehemently opposed the consolidation of an autonomous Kurdish area in northern Syria along the Turkish frontier, led by the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Party (PYD) and its YPG militia. The Afrin canton is separated from the larger two Kurdish cantons in north and northeast Syria, Kobani and Cezire, by the opposition and Turkish-supported areas in Idlib and northern Aleppo.
Erdoğan did not explicitly refer to the conflict during his address. However, he reiterated that Ankara will not allow separatist operations in Iraq and Syria, just as “we haven’t allowed such operations within our borders” in facing the armed insurgency of the Turkish Kurdish PKK for more than 30 years.
A Daily Sabah columnist was more direct in linking the Idlib intervention to an offensive against the PYD and YPG:
Ankara has made a plan to block the the PKK and its Syrian affiliate Democratic Union Party’s (PYD) efforts to establish a corridor on its southern border. The first step of the plan is to cut off the Idlib-Afrin corridor by providing order in Idlib and blockading Afrin.
Asked if Russia would accept a Turkish push to take Afrin, a local source replied, “I guess Russia sold afrin for the sake of a nuclear plant and a miltech [military technology] joint venture.”
In June, Russia’s State Atomic Energy Corporation (Rosatom) was given the go-ahead to build a $20 billion Akkuyu nuclear power plant in southern Turkey. In mid-September, Turkey signed a deal to obtain Russia’s advanced S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems.
Erdoğan hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin at the end of September and visited Iran last week in further consultations.
The Kurdish outlet Hawar said on Saturday that “the Turkish occupation army” had begun removing a barrier on the border of Idlib to prepare for an advance, chanting, “Idlib, we are coming.” It did not mention any potential operations against Afrin.
US Backs Turkey
The Trump Administration ignored the Kurdish dimension as it backed Erdoğan’s announcement.
“We support the efforts of Turkey, our NATO ally, in the fight against terrorism and its efforts to protect its borders,” said Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon. “The Syrian regime has allowed northwest Syria to become a safe haven for Al Qa’eda terrorists that not only threaten the Syrian people and regional security, but also support international terrorist networks.”
Referring to HTS through its leading faction Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, Pahon said, “The Nusra Front has publicly declared itself an Al Qa’eda affiliate. It shares Al Qa’eda’s terrorist aims and agenda, not those of the Syrian people.”
HTS Announce Defeat of Regime at Abu Dali in Northern Hama
The jihadist bloc Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has declared the defeat of regime forces at a key trading point in northern Hama Province, claiming that it inflicted numerous casualties and seized substantial equipment and weapons.
HTS has attacked Abu Dali (see map), one of the few points of contact between opposition and regime areas, for several days. It announced the capture on Saturday night.
A pro-Assad blog says some National Defense Forces militia are still fighting but are “fully besieged“.
Russian aircraft dropped incendiary munitions last night in an attempt to halt HTS.