Idlib: The Game Above the Game – by David W. Lesch

David Lesch

The Game Above the Game
by David W. Lesch
For Syria Comment – Sept 21, 2018

The various combatants in and around Idlib seem to have hit the pause button for the time being.  What just a short time ago appeared to be an imminent onslaught by Russian and Iranian supported Syrian government forces to take back one of the last areas outside of the control of Damascus, accompanied by widespread civilian casualties and refugees fleeing the battleground, now has given way to high stakes diplomacy.

The key is Turkey.  The Turks have been the dominant power in northwestern Syria along the border and down through the province of Idlib for a number of years since the fall of Aleppo to the opposition early in the Syrian civil war.  Indeed, in some ways, with Turkey establishing shared power grids, training local police forces, rebuilding and staffing schools, and investing in the local economy, northern Syria functionally looks more like southern Turkey nowadays. This process actually started years before the beginning of the civil war when a honeymoon in relations between the two countries led to heavy Turkish investment in Syria, economic integration, and an expansion of Turkish cultural markers.

Since the civil war began, however, Ankara has supported the many stripes of the anti-Assad coalition in this part of Syria, including elements of the Free Syrian Army and a plethora of jihadist groups.  At first, Turkey was committed to the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As it became clear, certainly since the Russian military intervention on behalf of the Syrian government in 2015, that Assad was going to remain in power, Turkey’s objectives in Syria shifted to making sure empowered Kurdish groups, many of whom Ankara has labeled terrorists, were unable to establish autonomous zones, especially along the Turkish-Syrian border. The most powerful Kurdish fighting force has been backed by the US as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces in its attempts to roll back and eliminate the presence of the Islamic State in Syria, a dynamic that has, to say the least, complicated US-Turkish relations.

Enter Russia—or more to the point, Vladimir Putin.  The Russian president’s foray into Syria has proven to be quite successful in the short term.  He was able to keep Assad in power and, therefore, maintain, indeed significantly enhance, Russian strategic assets in the heartland of the Middle East.  By way of this intervention, he has orchestrated Russia’s return as a major diplomatic player in the region, probably even more so than the US at the moment.  And because the US early on decided to team with the Kurds, who had the best available indigenous fighting force to take on the Islamic State, therefore alienating an increasingly autocratic Turkish President Erdogan, perhaps he could even find the holy grail and pluck a disenchanted Turkey away from the US and NATO and into Russia’s orbit—a potential strategic coup of enormous proportions. As a result, Russian-Turkish relations have greatly improved in recent years after some early hiccups, to the point where Russia, Iran, and Turkey have become the working group in the so-called Astana process, which for several years has monopolized attempts to de-escalate the war in Syria.

What has emerged is a very tense diplomatic game focusing on Idlib.  Everything would be much easier if Turkey would have just withdrawn from the area.  Certainly, this is what Russia and Syria were hoping for, especially as it appeared the Turks had backed themselves in a corner with no easy way out.  The Syrian government and the Russians would like nothing better than to just batter Idlib into submission, a strategy that has worked elsewhere in the country. But Turkey abandoning Syria was never going to happen. Erdogan has invested too much political capital—and two full-fledged offensives—in northern Syria to just give up.  His domestic position politically is not as solid as it once was, especially as his economy continues to plummet, so admitting defeat by leaving Syria is not an option.

Perhaps this is why the Syrians and Russians built up their forces in the area and began a targeted aerial assault, i.e. to intimidate Turkey into taking the path of least resistance out of Syria. Instead, it appears that Erdogan, stiffened by the timely support of and tough talk from the US and some of its European allies, has called the Russian bluff.  He has sent more men and materiel to reinforce existing observation posts in Idlib and moved more forces toward the border.

Erdogan is basically saying the following to Putin:  if there is an all-out Syrian-Russian offensive, Turkish troops will be killed, with possibly a direct Russian-Turkish military confrontation that could even involve the US in support of its recalcitrant NATO ally.  This would all but end Putin’s dream of reeling in Turkey and perforce push Ankara back toward the US—the Kurdish issue notwithstanding.

Putin blinked.  And now there has been a Russian-Turkish agreement to find another way to resolve the situation in Idlib short of war.  He’s giving Erdogan a face-saving way out of his morass while possibly solidifying his relationship with him.  Somehow Turkey will fudge the separation of legitimate Syrian opposition forces from the jihadists, such as the al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, after which time perhaps there can be a joint effort to eradicate the “terrorists.”  This will be easier said than done as the estimated 10,000 jihadists in Idlib have nowhere to go and will dig in.

I can’t imagine Assad likes this deal at all, as it consecrates Turkey’s position of influence in the north. He wanted to pummel Idlib and gain more territorial control over his country, but his depleted forces can’t do it without substantial Russian help.  He has to go with the Russian diplomatic game right now, perhaps waiting until it might inevitably breakdown—or until the next UN General Assembly session is over in September, when international diplomacy focuses elsewhere while he incrementally picks away at the edges of Idlib both militarily and through reconciliation agreements. Maybe this is also what the Russians have in mind. They too would like nothing better than to eliminate jihadists in Idlib, a number of whom are Chechen and from other areas in Russia who have caused problems for Moscow in the past.  They want to dig the graves of these hardened jihadists in Syria rather than have them return to Russia.

Right now, though, the diplomatic games are being played above those in Idlib itself, many of whom are anxiously awaiting their fate—and are at the whim of leaders who have anything but their fate in mind.

David W. Lesch is a the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of Middle East History at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX and author of the upcoming book, Syria (Polity Press).

Comments (9)

Robert HARNEIS said:

Whatever happens in the short run, a glance at the map tells us that there is no way Syria and its allies are going to tolerate a large territory inhabited by murderous foreign mercenaries right next to Aleppo and Lattakia for any longer than they have to. As usual Putin is playing a long game, whilst the US is worrying about its world image and domestic elections. In the long run what will matter is that Syria, Russia and Iran are playing at home for existential issues and the US and its European satellites are a long way from home – and they have no money. Western bankruptcy cannot be far away. This explains the increasingly reckless Western foreign policy and the patience of their adversaries. Meanwhile every day Russia and China, and therefore Iran and Syria, are becoming stronger militarily.

September 21st, 2018, 3:33 am


Eugene said:

I’m always curious as to how the various authors, the ones from the different western countries – especially the U.S. – write. I presume they have their contacts, but unless they are on the ground, how accurate can they be? It’s one thing to be subjective, quite another to be biased, as many are.

September 21st, 2018, 4:53 am


Majedkhaldoun said:

Facts has to be considered in Syria, first the numbers, there are over 3 million Syrians in Turkey as refugees, there are close to three million Syrians in Idlib , and there are three million Syrians live east of Euphrates river, in addition to 2.5 million Syrians live in Jordan and Lebanon, also one million they are in Europe and elsewhere, all together they are more than half of Syria population.
Second US in Syria seems to be for the long run, there is no indication that US is going to leave Syria in the next two to three years.
Third Erdogan will lose a lot if he leaves Syria, and he would not sever his relations with the west, it is true that he is not happy with US as he blamed the US to support the coup against him in 2016, Putin is trying hard to have Erdogan on his side , but neither Erdogan trust Putin completely , nor Putin is sure that Erdogan is true ally of Russia.
Then comes Iran , Iran is not ally of Turkey, in Sochi , Iran was excluded, also US is isolating Iran more and more, , Iran is heavily involved in Syria, through Hizb Allah and other Militias, US is against Iran presence in Syria, the question , how is the US plan to force Iran to exit Syria? This seems impossible now, not exactly, but certainly any successful attemp to force Iran out of Syria has to involve military action. That seems inevitable in the next two years.
As for Assad , it was clear from day one of this revolution , that Assad would not go for political solution , he took the military solution, that in my opinion was a mistake, as Assad represents the minorities while Syrians against Assad are the majority, and in fact he was about to lose the fight , has it not for Putin to come to his support, now Assad is still in power but Iran and Russia occupy Syria, this is not going to last, this is unstable situation, this is a temporary situation, more fighting is certain in Syria.
Assad and Erdogan are never going to be friends again , the military revolution is over now, the fight now is regional fight, Turkey versus Iran, the fate of Assad has to depend on who wins.

September 21st, 2018, 5:04 am


ALAN said:

ROBERT HARNEIS : /a glance at the map tells us that there is no way Syria and its allies are going to tolerate a large territory inhabited by murderous foreign mercenaries right next to Aleppo and Lattakia for any longer/
No, not correct! The map showes fragmented as a result of understanding between major & regional powers. for now its not about foreign or local mercenaries but about the struggle of states over areas of influence and domination.
Syria will be those states / states, which are likely to be compatible with the competing countries, or those that will result from the fait accompli, whether war or without war.

September 23rd, 2018, 4:25 pm


mjabali said:

Turkey intervened for its own sake because their economy is not good. If al-Assad and his allies would have attacked when they were fresh from their battle in the south, there would have been thousands of refugees into Turkey.

Turkish economy dictated their latest action in Syria.

As for the Jihadi groups in Idlib: they are the elephant in the room.

al-Nusra/aka Tahrir al-Sham, Hurass al-Din, al-Hizb al-Islami al-Turkistani …etc…are going to face a new wave of assaults by groups supported by Turkey.

The battle is going to be between Jihadi groups vs groups supported by Turkey.

The battle in the long run is how to battle the Jihadi culture that had planted hundreds of schools in the area.

October 1st, 2018, 1:32 am


Chris Carson said:

You have to keep in mind that Putin is playing Go. Its not very much like the chess, that others are starting to learn.

I would not assume that Putin blinked. Its far more likely he wanted this outcome. Now its up to Erdogan. 😉

As well as he has the Israeli situation in serious play, its to his advantage that he does not have a serious assault in progress at this time.

October 3rd, 2018, 5:30 pm


habib said:

Podcast interview with long time Syriacomment writer Ehsani:

Could deserve a post, compared to all the other dreck featured here lately.

October 5th, 2018, 6:18 am


Ghufran said:

Erdogan like all Muslim Brotherhood fellows will be willing to switch positions to keep a slice of the pie, he bends and pulls back when he feels that he is about to lose. What can prevent a large scale war is a regional understanding that keeps Syria in one piece but accommodates big players. Assad needs the support of Sunnis in what is called useful Syria but he also needs oil and security to convince fence sittters that his regime is less worse than the alternatives, for that to happen he has no choice but to divide his enemies and make peace with people and governments he does not like. The use of force in 2011 was certainly a mistake but I do not believe that Assad was able to sing outside the choir, he had to follow his foreign friends and domestic hardliners “advice” when he realized that everybody was there to get him and remove his regime. There was never a popular revolution in Syria, there was an Islamist uprising that threatened minorities, silenced moderates and recruited jihadists including foreign terrorists. This is why the uprising failed, Iran and Russia did not come to bring freedom and democracy but they came to stop the transformation of Syria into another Afghanistan, that transformation would have created another 9/11 and brought NATO to Syria as an occupying force. Yes Assad needs to go and he should not have become president in the first place but his enemies provided no good alternative to his regime. We said that in 2012 and it is still true today.

October 18th, 2018, 11:19 pm


ALAN said:

Anyone who asks for the withdrawal of the military forces of the western coalition from the territory of democratic eastern Syria should eventually take into account the complete withdrawal of Russians, Iranians, Lebanese and their mercenaries from dictatorial western Syria

October 20th, 2018, 4:25 pm


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