Ankara Anchored: Serious About Syria?
Turkey’s Dangerous Games Trigger Idlib Catastrophe
The meeting of the Russian, Iranian and Turkish presidents dedicated to the Syrian settlement was held in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi on February 14, 2019. Presidents Vladimir Putin, Hassan Rouhani and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan discussed possible ways of the political resolution of the Syrian crisis and joint steps that would help normalise the situation in Syria and seriously advance the peace process by showing respect to international law and agreements signed by the parties concerned.
Speaking of the peaceful settlement in Idlib, the three leaders said that they agreed to continue working on the implementation of the Sochi Summit. The certain adjustments on transferring Idlib’s largest part under Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (former al-Qaeda terrorists or HTS) control would be made. As of yet, it is not clear whether the hostilities against terrorists would open. The detailed answer could be given only after having analysed the Turkish activities on implementing all the points of the Memorandum on Stabilisation of the Situation in Idlib, as well as after having studied the development of the situation since the document had been signed.
Details Of The Memorandum
The Memorandum on Stabilisation of the Situation in Idlib was signed in mid-September 2018. The document lists a 10-point plan to avoid an offensive in the north-western Syrian province. Aside from the demilitarised zone, which would go “15-20km deep in the de-escalation area”, the document grants the Iranian-Russian-Turkish Co-ordination Centre a role in implementing the ceasefires. The document also said that Russia is responsible for outside security environment, while Turkey is liable to take the security measures inside the zone.
As per the second point, Russia will take all the necessary measures to ensure that military operations and attacks on Idlib will be avoided and the existing status quo will be maintained. Turkey, too, will have to make some adjustments.
The main complaint regarding Turkey is linked to points 5, 6, 8 and 9 of the Memorandum. The effective measures on ensuring ceasefire by Ankara have not been taken yet. Besides, President Erdoğan’s determination on fighting terrorists in Syria has not also been recorded. What is going on in Idlib with the direct complicity of Turkey?
Not only inaction, but also silent endorsement of Turkey allows the radicals to seize power in the Syrian province. The picture below clearly demonstrates HTS’ and the affiliated groups’, including Jaysh al-Izza, control over the frontlines in Northern Hama, Western Aleppo and Southern Idlib.
HTS militants officially rejected the terms of the Sochi agreement. The fulfilling of the deal by President Erdoğan is even less likely under the current circumstances.
In this regard, the statement of Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu regarding the HTS attacks in Idlib looks quite ridiculous. “Radical groups are attacking the Syrian opposition and we have taken necessary measures to halt these attacks,” he said. This statement looks genuine, but the minister exaggerated the measures taken by Ankara, especially if we look at the map.
Cavusoglu rushed to improve the situation, but did nothing other than blaming Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for redeploying militants (!) in Idlib. It’s very amusing to know that now, the HTS has taken control of the entire province. Then how Ankara was satisfied earlier when the terrorists flooded the region?
Has The Process Of Establishing Islamic Control Over Idlib Passed On Silent Approval Of Turkey?
The defeat of Nour al-Din al-Zenki, Ahrah al-Sham concessions and dissolution of Free Idlib Police (the branch of al-Qaeda in Syria) have played a crucial role in changing the balance of power. Jaysh al-Ahrar acknowledged the power of Salvation Government controlled by HTS. Its leaders agreed on handing over its territories along the Syrian-Turkish border, as well as in HTS strongholds and checkpoints.
In early January, the HTS successfully captured National Liberation Front positions and allowed the Salvation Government to control those areas. It was done following the peace agreement signed between the concerned sides. After that, all the health facilities in Idlib stopped operating due to the suspension of supplies of medical items by the European Union (EU) and other international organisations. So, the situation in the Syrian province has turned into a humanitarian catastrophe. Moreover, the HTS reached an agreement on redeployment of 1,700 Jabhat al-Wataniya lil-Tahrir militants from Al-Gab to Afrin.
Other illegal armed groups signed an agreement with Al-Nusra on territorial transfer to the Salvation Government (linked to HTS) without any resistance and the remnants of the moderate opposition joined the ranks of the terrorists. Thus, the atmosphere in the region became tense. All the efforts to sort out the moderate opposition have failed.
By the way, the lack of Turkey’s (and its pawns’) counter-action measures demonstrates the direct involvement of the Turkish special services in strengthening the HTS in Idlib. Moreover, it is evident in the statement issued by HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani who backed the Turkish plan to counter Kurds in the north-eastern Syria.
HTS ‘Disciplines’ Idlib
According to the representatives of other groups, a large number of former Free Syrian Policemen are unemployed and now, there is no one left to fight against corruption, robberies, assassinations and lootings (as these indicators are slightly higher in Idlib than in other parts of Syria). And now, Idlib would be patrolled by the Islamic Police, consisting of militant groups belonging to the HTS, instead of Free Syrian police.
In the pretext of war against the Islamic State (ISIS), the new authorities have started making illegal arrests, carrying out prompt investigations and mass executions, and murdering political activists. They are also involved in kidnappings, terror attacks and indiscriminate shooting on the streets.
First of all, it should be classified as dispatching of rivals, as well as establishing a single rule of the jihadists, instead of securing the locals. The local residents gradually turned into al-Julani hostages. The radical elements not only managed to get inside, but also got a foothold in the Syrian revolutionary movement and started playing a leadership role.
Maybe, that is why the leaked voice recording of conversations between the HTS militants, discussing the abduction of a rich man from Saraqib, is no longer surprising. During the incident, a woman was killed and a child was severely injured. The HTS commander involved in the kidnapping, Abu Ahmad, offered to shift the responsibility for the killing of the woman onto an ISIS cell in Idlib through the controlled propaganda media.
The people of Idlib reasonably express fears for their own lives and lives of their near and dear ones, as the cases of abduction have become more regular. As a result, the locals try to resist the radicals.
Is The Arms Trade In Line With The Memorandum?
Apart from repressions, the HTS initiated the arms trade in the Syrian province. Underground gun shops offer rifles at a special price of USD 600 apiece. Anyone can easily purchase a sniper rifle that looks like Romanian PSL DMR with a scope.
One can even purchase a suicide vest that is quite valuable in the black market. The ad says that the vest contains 4kg of C4 explosives and an old Soviet-made detonator. Meanwhile, you can also buy a homemade Mosin rifle.
All these indicate that the HTS influence zone has expanded a lot. It turns out that Turkey violates the 10th point of the Memorandum, obliging Ankara to combat terrorism in Syria in all forms and manifestations.
Road-Blocking & The Eighth Point Of Memorandum
Due to the expansion of the HTS influence zone, the eighth point of the Memorandum on the Restoration of Traffic along the M4 (Aleppo-Latakia) and M5 (Aleppo-Hama) highways is also not implemented. In late January, the HTS radicals blocked traffic on Afrin-Idlib highway, arguing that they were afraid of ISIS infiltration in the province. And since January 29, they have blocked all the roads from rural Aleppo to Idlib.
Now, the entry to Idlib is restricted and each driver has to pay a fee of USD 100. Currently, the operation is carried out by the HTS militants.
The situation is also critical as far as food supply is concerned. The occupation of a highway, running to Bab al-Hawa border crossing, by the radicals has resulted in higher prices of goods. According to The Guardian, the locals are afraid of the lack of money to purchase food and to pay for fuel. The fact is especially critical when there is a lack of job opportunities and people can’t even receive the minimum wage.
Under the current circumstances, the EU Council’s appeal to ensure unimpeded access of humanitarian aid to Idlib sounds more relevant than ever. And Turkey, as a guarantor state, must provide this opportunity. Therefore, it can be stated that President Erdoğan failed to implement another point of the Sochi Agreements related to the opening of the two key transport routes. On the contrary, the situation with communications in Idlib during the validity of the Memorandum has deteriorated. Various armed entities that had controlled the checkpoints have been replaced by the HTS jihadists who established their own rules. For sure, these circumstances provide the preconditions for claims to President Erdoğan from Moscow, Tehran and Damascus.
Demilitarised Zone Issue
It is to be noted that the fifth and the sixth points of the Memorandum envisage the withdrawal of the radical armed groups from the demilitarised zone till October, 15, 2018. Tanks, artillery units, MLRS and mortars had to be withdrawn till October 10, 2018. Turkey has failed to ensure this, too. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham militants are strengthening their positions, as they are regularly shelling the nearby settlements and building up their forces close to the frontline.
The largest part of Idlib demilitarised zone is occupied by the terrorists. The local activists report that around 70% of the territory is seized by radicals. The HTS is attacking the Syrian Army positions and human settlements. However, the HTS artillery fire has never created trouble in al-Tah region in southern Idlib. Thus, the Turkish forces seem to have deliberately violated the Memorandum by not withdrawing the militants from the Syrian province.
There have also been fierce clashes between the jihadists and Syrian Arab Army (SAA) units on the frontline north-west to Aleppo. During the last one month, the government forces successfully repulsed HTS attack west to Abu Douhur in Idlib. SAA sources have said that the militants once used prohibited chemical weapons and it resulted in the hospitalisation of two servicemen.
Will Chemical Weapon Be Used?
As per the available information, the terrorists’ leaders are getting ready to carry out chemical attacks on the eve of an offensive operation. With the aid of European specialists arriving via Turkey, the jihadists have set up chemical weapons depots at 30 towns near Idlib de-escalation area.
It may be indirectly confirmed by the fact that White Helmets are causing a stir around Idlib. Civil defenders have already intensified their activities in Idlib, as they have appeared in the town of Maarat al-Nouman right after it has been captured by the HTS, claimed the local residents. Furthermore, the White Helmets have stored their equipment in local hospitals so that they could launch a chemical attack. Later, they will blame Damascus for the attack.
Operational Co-ordination Between Islamists
Under the leadership of HTS, a joint command and control organisation, called Military Council, was created. This body is basically serves as an operational headquarters of different groups involved, including former opposition forces the 1st Coastal Division, Jaysh al-Izza, Suqour al-Sham and few others.
Down to Aleppo, Hama and Latakia, the terrorists are forming offensive groups, armed with artillery and tanks. The HTS is regularly recruiting mercenaries, training them and monitoring their operational co-ordination. The forced mobilisation is conducted among the youths, aged 15 to 22. All these are taking place in the presence of Turkish soldiers, as they do absolutely nothing to prevent the destabilisation. Thus, the whole idea of a demilitarisation zone and diplomatic settlement of the situation in Idlib has been compromised.
Besides, the first Islamic Private Military Contractor (PMC) – called ‘Malhama Tactical’ – has intensified its activities, which foremost consists of training of jihadists from different groups located in the HTS-held territories. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, itself, funds the training. Mercenaries are in charge of recruiting militants, and of deploying machine gunners and snipers.
At the same time, the Malhama Tactical leadership has been caught in crowd-funding through social networks and also in supporting jihadists. To get further on Malhama Tactical activity, read the article on Foreign Policy.
And What Is Turkey’s Role?
It would be nonsense to say that Ankara has no accurate information about implementation of the agreements in Idlib by some groups still under Turkey’s control. Turkish personnel are still active in the northern part of Syria, where they conduct surveillance and aerial survey by drones above the Idlib province.
Turkey has prepared a strategy to tackle the situation in the de-escalation zone in Idlib. This strategy violates the Memorandum.
Former US Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter the Islamic State Brett McGurk said that Ankara was supporting many opposition groups and creating friendly conditions for them. He considered the province of Idlib as a zone of Turkish influence where groups – affiliated with al-Qaeda – prevail. According to McGurk, all the guarding points near the border are controlled by al-Qaeda and it is a serious aggravating issue in the settlement process in Idlib.
Is There A Possibility Of A Military Operation In Idlib?
Turkey is supposed to respect the Sochi Accord, but it can’t due to the largest part of Idlib being held by the HTS. The scenario of bargaining, like it was in the case of the Afrin deal, may be advantageous for Ankara. In exchange of an operation against Kurds of Rojava, Turkey agreed to not interfere in SAA’s activities in Idlib.
The possible scenario is a joint operation, during which pro-Turkish groups would move from the north and also from the border areas, while the Syrian and Iranian troops would start from the de-escalation zone.
In any case, Turkey is fully responsible for undermining the joint Memorandum. Moreover, the current situation demonstrates Turkey’s negligence to guarantee the withdrawal of heavy weapons and the radical jihadist groups from Idlib. As the Turkish president is turning a blind eye to what is going on in the province of Idlib, things are getting worse!
Boundless Ocean of Politics has received this article from Firas Samuri, an independent Syrian journalist.
Firas Samuri is an independent journalist and investigator with a special focus on issues related to the Middle East (or West Asia). The 33-year-old Firas was born in Syria, but migrated to the UK a couple of years ago. Currently, he is concentrating on the political situation in Syria, including the successful steps taken by the SAA against ISIS and other terror outfits. Firas is also monitoring the crimes against humanity committed by the US in the West Asian nation.
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