Syrian Rebels Enter Idlib as Turkey Gears Up for ‘Risky’ Mission


Syrian rebels backed by Turkey are engaged in a “serious operation” in the country’s Idlib province, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, part of a joint mission with Russia and Iran to monitor a ceasefire agreement and pacify a rebel stronghold in northwest Syria.

Turkey also beefed up troops on the border since the three countries agreed in Astana, Kazakhtan to establish a combat-free zone in Idlib — largely controlled by former al-Qaeda militants — and to monitor any violations by opposition groups or forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. It isn’t clear when Turkish troops will cross the Syrian border.

On Saturday, Free Syrian Army rebels, riding on the back of trucks with automatic weapons, crossed into Idlib via Turkey as troops received orders about where they will be deployed in Syria, Hurriyet newspaper reported. Erdogan said Turkish troops haven’t yet crossed the border and the operation was carried out by the FSA rebels. The troops had earlier clashed their way to retake Syrian town of al-Bab from Islamic State.

There is a “serious operation underway in Idlib and it will continue,” Erdogan said in a televised address to ruling AK Party members in Afyon. “We can’t leave our brothers who had fled Aleppo to the mercy of terrorist organizations.”

The moves come after Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Ankara to dine with Erdogan on Sept. 28. Erdogan traveled to Tehran on Wednesday to meet with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. The Turkish leader’s coordination with Russia and Iran comes amid deepening tensions with the U.S., exacerbated by Washington’s decision to deliver arms to Kurdish groups that Turkey views as terrorists.

Ankara’s Shift

Turkish troops are expected to be deployed inside Idlib with Russians stationed around the city, and the collaboration emphasizes the closer ties between Erdogan and Putin, a relationship viewed with concern by Turkey’s NATO allies. It also represents a shift in Ankara’s attitude to Syrian leader Assad, analysts said. Turkey has long opposed any political transition under him, but Russia’s intervention in Syria’s civil war shored up the president after years of Turkish and U.S. insistence that he must go.

Turkish army and intelligence will evaluate the conditions in the field before taking steps for deployment of the soldiers, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Afyon late on Saturday.

“Our aim is to prevent clashes and ease the political process,” he said. “Astana is a platform to stop clashes through confidence-building measures but our aim now is to” revive plans to find a political solution to end the war.

Bashar Assad

By joining the Idlib mission, Turkey is “de facto agreeing to the transition of power for Assad,” Talha Kose, an analyst with the Ankara-based Foundation for Political and Social Research, said at a conference on Syria in Istanbul on Thursday. “It is a very risky area — Turkey may face a backlash from moderate rebels if it can’t deliver humanitarian services” and may also “come under pressure” from Russia and Iran to eliminate militants, he said.

Turkey’s goal will be to prevent violations of the ceasefire agreement, deliver aid to civilians and pacify groups including the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Erdogan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin told state-run TRT television on Thursday, referring to the al-Qaeda-linked militants. It is unclear where Iranian forces would be stationed.

A successful mission would help Assad focus on fighting Islamic State in eastern Syria, Emre Ersen, an analyst at Istanbul’s Marmara University, said at the conference. In addition to HTS fighters, Idlib contains factions of the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army who fought against the Syrian president.

Turkey should rely on the moderate rebels in Idlib, including the Free Syrian Army, to fight the Islamic militants and avoid any unilateral military action that could be construed as violating the terms of the agreement, said Kose.

After Idlib?

The scale of Turkey’s military buildup has raised questions about whether it has ambitions after Idlib, particularly in the neighboring Kurdish-run province of Afrin. Turkey has threatened to clear the province of Kurdish forces that it regards as belonging to a terrorist group with links to the PKK, which has long battled for autonomy in Turkey’s southeast. Turkey has been seeking the support of both Russia and Iran against the Kurds in Syria.

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