It is not easy to follow what has been happening in Syria. After six years of war and between 300,000 and 400,000 people killed -- with half the population displaced and a dizzying array of factions, foreign armies and extremist groups fighting -- it is hard to know who shares what interest with whom or how the killing stops.
Over the last few weeks, the fight for Raqqa, the Islamic State’s Syrian capital, and the battle for Deir Ezzor, the gateway to Iraq and the location of oil fields, have heated up, but the intensity of fighting in some other parts of the country has diminished. This is because Syrian government forces and their allies — Hezbollah, Shia militias from Iraq, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Russian bombers — have taken and held territory. The Russians have also taken the lead in establishing “de-escalation zones” in parts of seven provinces and in eastern Ghouta near Damascus.
Last weekend while the world was focused on North Korea and the referendum in the Kurdish region of Iraq, the Turkish military pushed into a buffer area south of Turkey’s border with Syria and dropped a significant amount of equipment there. This is in preparation for the establishment of a de-escalation zone in Idlib governorate — a 2,300-square-mile area that is sandwiched between Aleppo to the east and the Turkish province of Hatay to the west.
Under an agreement establishing these zones that the Russian, Iranian and Turkish governments hammered out in the Kazakh capital, Astana, last May, hostilities must come to an end, humanitarian assistance must be expedited and infrastructure must be repaired. The parties — or “guarantors” as they are referred to in the "Memorandum on the Creation of De-Escalation Areas in the Syrian Arab Republic" — also agree to “take all necessary measures to ensure the fulfillment” of the ceasefire; continue to fight the Islamic State, the “Nusra Front and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al Qaeda or DAESH/ISIL”; and encourage those who have not joined the ceasefire to do so. The agreement is renewable every six months so long as the governments of Russia, Turkey and Iran consent to it. The hope is that de-escalation will produce a durable ceasefire that will eventually bring the war in Syria to an end.
As the Assad regime has regained more and more territory since the Russian intervention in September 2015, Idlib has remained a significant pocket of resistance. The power brokers in the governorate are the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS or Tahrir al Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al Nusra) and Ahrar al Sham, an umbrella organization of sorts that includes extremists and less-extremist fighters, though many of the former joined Tahrir al Sham in July 2017. Over the course of the war both groups had been important to Turkey’s frustrating and unsuccessful effort to dislodge Bashar al-Assad from power, but Ankara’s priorities in Syria have since changed.
The emergence of the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units or YPG — which is linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a Turkish Kurdish group that has been waging a bloody campaign for Kurdish independence or autonomy for three decades — not long after the Syrian uprising became militarized, along with the group’s battlefield effectiveness, have reframed the fight in Syria for the Turks. The Turkish government is no longer interested in helping Syrians liberate themselves from Assad’s murderous regime. Rather, Ankara is focused on suppressing Kurdish nationalism. The fact that the United States has linked up with the YPG in the fight against the Islamic State has only heightened the Turkish anxiety over the fragmentation of Syria and with it the emergence of what Kurds call Rojova (Western Kurdistan), tied to the terrorists of the PKK. In order to forestall this nightmare, the Turks have made common cause with the underwriters of Assad’s survival — Moscow and Tehran.
De-escalation would be a positive development for the people of Idlib, of course. A cessation of hostility presages the possibility of some type of normalcy after so much violence, though in Syria hostilities often continue after the announcement of ceasefires. As it turns out, just as the Turks were making preparations for the de-escalation zone, the Syrian and Russian air forces undertook a withering air assault on Idlib, killing dozens of civilians. Still, the memorandum signed in May suggests that diplomacy is still possible in Syria. If the de-escalation zones produce some semblance of stability, that's an achievement, though qualified by the fact that all three guarantors have in their own way contributed to Syria’s bloodletting. Any ceasefire will redound to Assad’s benefit. Even so, saving the lives of innocents in Idlib would be a good thing.
It remains unclear how Turkey, in particular, plans to effect de-escalation in Idlib. Last weekend’s preparations in the buffer zone indicate that the Turks are gearing up and plan to live up to their commitments. Yet they have not said how many soldiers or advisers the Turkish military plans to send into the part of the governorate for which it is responsible. There has been some talk of 300 to 500 personnel who will work with the Jaysh Watani or National Army, an amalgamation of something like 40 groups and militias that currently exists more on paper than in reality, to pacify the area that Tahrir al Sham dominates. This has raised suspicions among Turkey-watchers that Ankara will be about as reliable in Idlib as it was when the Turks assured the U.S. in July 2015 that the Turkish military was prepared to join Americans in the fight against the Islamic State. Meaning not so much.
One can understand Turkish dithering. Tahrir al Sham is a fearsome group that is not interested in the Russian-Iranian-Turkish plans for Syria. Rather than de-escalation, the Turks may very well preside over the intensification of fighting in Idlib, if Tahrir al Sham resists and all-out conflict results. Then again, the Turks have a compelling reason not to let that happen. Having thrown their lot in with Moscow and Tehran, officials in Ankara need to demonstrate that they can deliver. Neither the Russians nor the Iranians have the kinds of relationships the Turks maintain in Idlib, so they are relying on Ankara to play an important role there that will further re-establish regime control over Syrian territory. This in turn raises the prospect that if its allies cannot handle Tahrir al Sham, Turkey will be forced to deploy more of its own forces into Idlib. What happens when the Turkish military gets bogged down in the fight and Turkish soldiers start coming home in body bags?
The inability to pacify Idlib would be a significant military and diplomatic blow, proving that President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent purge has rendered the second-largest military in NATO a shadow of itself and potentially undermining an apparent Turkish-Russian “Idlib for Afrin” side deal. Ever since the details of the May memorandum were revealed, Turkey-watchers suspected that Erdogan had agreed to do Vladimir Putin’s bidding in Idlib in exchange for Russian permission to push into an area near Afrin — a town in YPG-controlled territory that is uncomfortably close to the Turkish border. Russian officials are not likely to give the Turks what they want until Moscow gets what it wants in Idlib; after all, they are not American officials who consistently try to bank Turkish assurances.
Turkey’s failure to foster de-escalation in Idlib would be a setback for the Russians, but they (and the Iranians) would likely find comfort in the fact that the Turks, still a Western ally, could very well get stuck in Syria. A weakened Turkey damages the Atlantic alliance, which is a Russian goal. Given the evolution of the conflict, the choices the United States has made and the decisions the Turks have taken, Ankara had no choice but to go to Moscow to secure its interests in Syria. Being at the mercy of both Tahrir al Sham and the Russians is not a good place to be.