Turkey’s latest intervention in the Syria conflict appears to reflect a 180-degree shift in its policy of backing Al Qaeda-linked takfiris and a range of largely fundamentalist insurgents, as well as the Saudi-sponsored Syrian opposition with the aim of bringing down President Bashar Assad.
Last weekend, Turkish tanks, armoured vehicles and troops gathered in the western sector of the border between Turkey and Syria and exchanged fire with Al Qaeda’s Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham, a coalition headed by Jabhat Fatah Al Sham (formerly Jabhat Al Nusra).
Ankara is deploying Syrian insurgents belonging to the so-called Free Syrian Army (FSA), allegedly, to defeat Jabhat and its allies who refused to sign onto the plan, agreed by Russia, Iran and Turkey, to impose a ceasefire or establish a “de-escalation zone” in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province, dominated by Jabhat.
Instead of complying, the group rejected the plan and dispatched fighters to attack Syrian government troops on the edge of the zone that covers Idlib and the northern districts of Latakia and Hama provinces.
Under the “de-escalation” deal for the northwest, Turkey is meant to take control of the area near the border, while Russia and Iran are to impose an end of hostilities on the rest.
Turkey’s declared aim is to sweep the border clean of takfiris. This is ironic as Turkey had been the main facilitator of foreign takfiri traffic into Syria.
The war aim of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — whose Justice and Development Party is allied with the Muslim Brotherhood — has been to oust Assad and replace the secular Syrian government with a Brotherhood or radical fundamentalist regime.
During 2016, Turkey was forced to reconsider its position for several reasons. Russia and Iran intervened heavily on the side of the government. Its forces, given air cover by Russia and reinforced by Shiite militias supported by Iran, recaptured territory, cities, towns and villages lost to insurgents.
The US stepped up operations against Daesh in both Syria and Iraq and fielded the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces militia in the battle against Daesh in Raqqa, the cult’s de facto capital in north-central Syria.
Regional and Western actors formerly opposed to Assad have come to the conclusion that he has to stay in power until the takfiris and the mixture of armed groups are vanquished and the country is stabilised.
By backing takfiri intervention in Syria, Turkey has become a victim of takfiris, those belonging to both Jabhat and to Daesh.
US envoy Brett McGurk criticised Turkey for permitting the Jabhat to settle in Idlib and impose its control over other takfiri factions.
Daesh elements have settled in Turkey’s cities, towns and villages, established networks, radicalised Turks, and carried out bombings and shootings in Istanbul and Ankara.
More than 2,100 Turks are estimated to have joined Daesh, making the Turkish contingent in the group the fourth largest.
Ankara signalled a change of policy last December when it met with Moscow and Tehran in Astana, Kazakhstan, to exert pressure on government forces and a dozen insurgent groups — excluding Daesh and Jabhat — to agree to the de-escalation zones.
The deal delineated four zones — in northern Homs province, east of Damascus, and south, along the Jordanian border — where hostilities have largely halted, including air strikes.
The effort is due to last six months, with the option of extending the ceasefire.
Although not among the three sponsors of the deal, the US, its Western allies and Saudi Arabia — like Turkey, a sponsor of the insurgency — have backed the Astana process.
De-escalation is seen as a means to promote UN-brokered talks between Damascus and the Saudi-backed opposition.
The other two opposition groupings, the Cairo and Moscow platforms, argue that Assad must remain and cannot join the Riyadh-supported High Negotiations Committee as long as it continues to insist he must depart.
But the committee is reportedly split between hardliners, who stick to their old position, and moderates, who want to join forces with the Cairo and Moscow platforms.
Turkey’s stand could depend on the success in Idlib of surrogate insurgents, largely fundamentalists who have not distinguished themselves on the battlefield.
In earlier deployments, the Turks had to provide military backup. However, now that Jabhat is under attack from Turkish deployed militiamen, with Russian fighter jets overhead, the group’s allies are defecting and Jabhat fighters are fleeing, many across the border into Turkey.
Russia and Iran, which seek to extend Syrian government rule to the entire country, would not like to see northern Idlib become a Turkish occupation zone. Turkey has a reputation for keeping whatever it occupies: Syria’s province of Alexandretta/Iskenderun (called Hatay by Turkey) and northern Cyprus, for example.
Idlib shares a border with Hatay, so perpetual occupation is strategically possible. Turkey already occupies a tract of territory in the north, with the stated aim of preventing Syrian Kurds from extending their control over the entire border.
While Russia and Iran are pursuing their separate but complimentary strategic regional interests, Turkey, under Erdogan, cannot be trusted to adopt such a policy in Syria.
His support for insurgents and takfiris has been largely responsible for full-scale war in Syria, has extended the war to Iraq, and has harmed Turkey itself.
Nevertheless, he persisted in the war against Damascus and can be expected to use his surrogates to attack government forces and use whatever leverage he secures in Idlib to continue with his anti-Assad crusade, in spite of his tactical alliance with Russia and Iran and the high cost to Syria and Turkey itself.