Idlib: the rebel capital of Syria

Turkey and Russia reached an agreement to implement a de-escalation zone over the entire Idlib Province of Syria at the last (6th) Astana Conference. According to the agreement, Turkey would become the guarantor of rebel opposition groups situated in the province. In this way another destructive campaign by the Assad régime in Syria could be avoided, and the migrant populations that have moved there due to their opposition to the régime would be saved from further harm. Turkey is deploying its troops in Idlib, not only to bring peace to the  area itself, but also to surround and neutralise the YPD/PKK Kurdish pocket in Afrin, in conjunction with the Euphates Shield A’zaz to Al-Bab zone to the north. This would bring about Turkey’s aim of halting plans for a unified and contiguous Kurdish state in Syria, and doing so without spilling any further blood.

Idlib has seen many refugees flock to the city, especially after the dramatic fall of Aleppo, bringing the overall population (of the city alone) to well over a million. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), dominated by the al-Nusra Front (Jabhat al-Nusra), took control of much of the province after many military confrontations with its rival Ahrar al-Sham. Despite HTS’s overall control, Ahrar al-Sham, Faylaq al-Sham, Jays al-Izza and Jays al-Idlib, and Nour al-Din al-Zenki continue to control different pockets throughout the province. While these latter groups support the Turkish deployment and its backing of the Free Syria Army (FSA), HTS remains opposed, and there it is likely that a confrontation with Turkish troops occurs at some point. HTS have informants within the other opposition groups and also have high ranking officers who are in the service of Western intelligence agencies.

Turkey’s Idlib Operation replaced the previously planned Euphates Sword, which would have seen an advance directly into YDP/PKK territory in Afrin. It is being conducted with the FSA factions in the lead, in a similar manner to the previous Operation Euphrates Shield (OES), which began from Jarablus. One of the successes of the Turkish Idlib Operation has been to encourage small groups of fighter to split off from HTS, in order to strengthen the FSA with new elements with local knowledge. Another success seems to have been the marginalisation of HTS by prioritising humanitarian aid and reconstruction. It would appear that HTS finds itself in a corner as a result of this policy, since any attack on its part would lead, not only to many losses among its fighters, but also any local standing it might continue to have in the community.

Developments in Iraqi Kurdistan with the collapse of the Barzani independence referendum saw Turkey help Iraq, leading to the prospect of the maintenance of Iraq’s sovereign integrity. Turkey’s change of stance has rebalanced forces within Iraq, where Abadi, instead of relying purely on the US to fend off the extreme pro-Iranian political factions in the Shia coalitions, can now count on a new ally with significant local economic import, to strengthen his suit. Iran , far from seeing this as an unwelcome development in Iraqi politics, is relieved that Turkey can thus dilute the importance of the US here. This reduces the commitments Iran needs to make to the Iraqi economy to keep US influence in the country marginalised, and lessen the reactions against its presence, from nationalist groups such as the Sadr movement. Abadi new tough language with the US is a sign of this rebalancing and of his new political standing.

A new geopolitical understanding has also been reached over a remarkably short period between Turkey and Iran, based on all these developments, which in turn will also help to consolidate the Idlib Operation. The Russian-Turkish-Iranian Astana process has brought peace to the region. In this – its latest phase – the marginalisation of two the major tools of the Western intelligence agencies in the destabilisation of the region is complete: HTS and the YPG/PKK. So quickly has Turkey been able to effect its establishment of bases across Idlib Province, that it appears that a new operation is being envisaged in Afrin province itself.