Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has announced the start of military operations in opposition-held Idlib Province in northwest Syria.
Following discussions in the past week with leaders of Iran and Russia — both essential allies of the Assad regime who had been on the opposite side from Turkey for much of Syria’s 79-month conflict — Erdoğan told a meeting of his ruling AKP on Saturday that the operations will be directed against the jihadist bloc of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
HTS is led by the faction Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, which was known as Jabhat al-Nusra and pledged allegiance to Al Qa’eda up to July 2016. This summer the group took control of parts of Idlib from the leading rebel faction Ahrar al-Sham.
HTS’s presence has unified Turkey, Russia, and Iran as well as the US — all of whom consider it a “terrorist” organization which should be attacked. Moscow and the Assad regime have long used the pretext of HTS to attack other rebel factions and civilian sites in opposition territory, including renewed airstrikes on Idlib since September 19.
Those strikes effectively defied the “de-escalation zone” declared by Russia, Turkey, and Iran earlier in the month, as well as sitting uneasily alongside the declaration that Turkish, Russian, and Iranian personnel will deploy in and around Idlib to monitor a ceasefire.
Erdoğan did not refer to the complication in his speech. Instead, he presented the “landmark operation” as a natural extension of Turkey’s intervention in August 2016, alongside Free Syrian Army factions, to take territory in northern Aleppo Province adjacent to Idlib:
We have to help our brothers who arrived in Idlib after fleeing Aleppo. We won’t let them down. The necessary step was taken and it is ongoing. We will never allow the formation of a terror corridor along our border with Syria.
The President was cautious in answering a question about whether Turkish troops have entered Idlib for the operations: “The FSA is currently carrying out the operation and our soldiers are not there.”
But he pointed to an extension of Turkish-Russian cooperation, following their reconciliation in summer 2016, as he said that while Turkish armed forces support the operation from inside Turkey, Russia is providing aerial support.
In sharp contrast to Turkey’s opposition to Russian military intervention between September 2015 and summer 2016 — including the downing of a Russian warplane that crossed Turkish territory — Erdoğan said Russia and Turkey are acting jointly for the protection of people in Idlib.
A Move Against Syria’s Kurdish PYD?
Turkey has also 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.
Erdoğan did not explicitly refer to that conflict during his address, although 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.
An article in the pro-Erdoğan Daily Sabah is more direct in linking the Idlib intervention to an offensive against the Kurdish area in northwest Syria:
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 [the Kurdish canton of] Afrin….
Ankara assumes that following the liberation of Idlib, it will be easier to defeat the YPG in Afrin.