Erdogan wants to keep control over much of Syria’s Idlib: Tim Anderson

Professor Tim Anderson, the Director of the Sydney-based Centre for Counter Hegemonic Studies, says Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to keep control, or at least maintain his sphere of influence, over much of Idlib and several other parts of northern Syria.
Professor Tim Anderson

“Erdogan has backed al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-aligned armed groups in northern Syria since 2012, as part of his broader ambition to establish a Muslim Brotherhood sphere of influence in the region, with himself as regional leader,” he said in an interview with the Balkans Post.

The following is the transcript of the interview:

Balkans Post: How do you evaluate Turkey’s latest military action in Syria? What goals is Turkey pursuing?

Tim Anderson: Turkey’s President Erdogan has backed al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-aligned armed groups in northern Syria since 2012, as part of his broader ambition to establish a Muslim Brotherhood sphere of influence in the region, with himself as regional leader. That project is failing, with the demise of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt, Saudi attacks on its former Islamist partner in Qatar and the steady Syrian recovery of national control from terrorist groups. Nevertheless, Erdogan persists in supporting the last remaining holdout of terrorist groups (‘rebels’) in Idlib, as part of his ambition to dominate large parts of northern Syria.

That is the important background to the close operational coordination between Turkish troops and the leading terrorist group in Idlib, Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS). Together HTS and Turkish troops have attacked the advancing Syrian Arab Army (SAA), determined to restore all Syrian territory under national control. Over the past two years, Erdogan’s support for HTS had been more logistic (weapons and vehicles) but, since the SAA recaptured the large Idlib towns of Khan Sheikhoun, Ma’arat al Nu’man and, in particular, the strategically important crossroads town of Saraqib, Erdogan has driven direct Turkish military attacks on the SAA. Prior to the recent Moscow meeting between Presidents Erdogan and Putin, there were Turkish SAM attacks on Syrian and Russian planes, Turkish artillery attacks on the SAA and Turkish drone attacks on the SAA. Effectively, the Turkish military and HTS were working side by side, in attempts to block the SAA advance on the provincial capital, Idlib City. Erdogan wants to keep control, or at least maintain his sphere of influence, over much of Idlib and several other parts of northern Syria.

BP: How would the Turkish actions in Syria affect the future of peace efforts in the war-torn country?

Tim Anderson: The Turkish military aggression inside Syrian territory, and its support for the large terrorist groups – mainly HTS but also the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), led by Chinese Salafist Uyghurs and some others – is clearly a major obstacle for peace in Syria. Remember, the Syrian Arab Republic is currently occupied by three foreign states: Turkey (in the north west and north), the USA (in the north east, east and south) and Israel (in the south). As Syria and its allies defeated the proxy armies sent in to destroy the secular state, the sponsors of those same proxies moved in to take their place. Now, we have seen signs of coordination, with Israel launching missile attacks on Syrian military bases, just as the SAA advances against the HTS-Turkish alliance in Idlib.

BP: Russia and Turkey have reached a deal on an imminent ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib. What is your take on the development?

Tim Anderson: The 5 March meeting in Moscow, between Presidents Erdogan and Putin, was called by Erdogan after the latest threat of escalation, which followed 35 Turkish troops being killed, as they attempted, with their HTS allies, to retake Saraqib. Perhaps Erdogan looked to assert the permanence of his position in Idlib. In fact, he had complied with virtually none of the terms agreed with Russia back in late 2018, when an earlier ceasefire sought to prevent escalation. Demilitarized zones did not function, the key highways through Idlib (M4 and M5) were not reopened, as promised, and HTS respected none of the ceasefire terms. In fact, the designated terrorist groups (including Daesh, Nusra and its successor HTS) have been specifically excluded by the UN Security Council and the tripartite Sochi agreements (Russia, Turkey and Iran) from political discussions and ceasefires, with a mandate on all states to suppress them.

In the end, while the tone and content of the Moscow statements from Presidents Erdogan and Putin differed, there was agreement for another ceasefire (not including HTS) and an affirmation of the Sochi protocols. This stressed the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria, and the need for a Syrian-led political resolution. This is widely seen as a rebuff for Erdogan, who had begun to openly speak of Idlib as Turkish territory. For its part, Russia maintained its support for Damascus, while expecting the SAA to carry on with most of the military advances, on the ground. A new joint buffer zone around the M4 highway (from Saraqib to Latakia) would build on advances made by the SAA.

The armed groups in Idlib cried “betrayal” at their Turkish sponsors, but Erdogan was seen as having been given a chance to back down from possibly disastrous direct clashes with the battle-hardened SAA and its Russian backers. This had become a hot issue in Turkey, with a huge brawl in the Turkish parliament over the military’s losses in Syria, and what exactly Turkish troops were doing in Syria. At home, Erdogan is already on the back foot, in political and economic terms.

BP: Russia has said it is the responsibility of the Syrian Armed Forces to eradicate the militants and terrorists operating in Syria. Is this plausible, given the occasional Turkish incursion in favor of the terrorists?

Tim Anderson: According to Russian monitors, the terrorist groups in Idlib violated the ceasefire several times in the first 24 hours. They had done this many times before, so no change there. What remains to be seen is whether Erdogan takes advantage of the Moscow agreement to retreat with some dignity, and not further damage his domestic position. If Turkish troops pull back to their earlier logistical support for HTS and the others, we can expect to see an SAA advance on Idlib city in coming weeks. The tactics of Russian and Syrian air attacks, followed by rapid SAA ground advances, has worked well so far, in regaining Idlib territory. However, when it comes to Idlib City there will be a situation somewhat similar to Aleppo, where air power cannot be used because of the large civilian population. In that case the SAA will resort to siege tactics, with humanitarian exit corridors. So, to answer the question, yes, if there is not more direct escalation with the Turkish military, it is entirely plausible that Syria and its allies could eliminate terrorist-controlled territory and liberate Idlib Province, in the coming weeks.

Dr. Tim Anderson is Director of the Sydney-based Centre for Counter Hegemonic Studies. He has worked at Australian universities for more than 30 years, teaching, researching and publishing on development, human rights and self-determination in the Asia-Pacific, Latin America and the Middle East. In 2014 he was awarded Cuba’s medal of friendship. He is Australia and Pacific representative for the Latin America based Network in Defence of Humanity. His most recent books are: Land and Livelihoods in Papua New Guinea (2015), The Dirty War on Syria (2016), now published in ten languages; and Countering War Propaganda of the Dirty War on Syria (2017). His next book Axis of Resistance is due out in 2019.

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