Deadlock in Idlib: Main actors and different scenarios

Idlib province is the only region under the control of the Syrian opposition. More than 3 million people, most of whom migrated from other parts of the country, live there. The tension has increased following the Bashar Assad regime's ground forces' operations in the region over the last several weeks.

Idlib province is the only region under the control of the Syrian opposition. More than 3 million people, most of whom migrated from other parts of the country, live there. The tension has increased following the Bashar Assad regime’s ground forces’ operations in the region over the last several weeks. It seems that the military phase has not ended since the regime is determined to take the region from the opposition forces while also taking advantage of the negotiation table after creating a fait accompli on the ground.

Effective actors

Who is to blame for the loss of innocent lives and the increase in tension in the region? For sure, the Assad regime is the number one culprit. The regime captured 21 towns and villages without any serious resistance or confrontation from opposition groups. Yet, civilians continue to be targeted by the regime and Russian forces. As a result, around 150,000 Syrians have begun to move toward the Turkish border to escape the violence. Turkey blames the Assad regime for the escalation in tension in the region and for sabotaging the Sochi agreement and the Astana process. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan shared his concerns regarding the future of the region during a phone call with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Since the Assad regime is not a fully independent actor on the ground, it is necessary to consider the role of its supporters. Therefore, Russia, who is the most significant supporter for now, is also responsible for the regime’s military operations and the escalation of tension and continues to support the regime’s aerial attacks. Russian authorities have put pressure on Turkey for not fulfilling its commitments in the Sochi memorandum of clearing the region from terrorists and radical elements. However, observers are aware that Russia started the bombardment before the regime to prevent possible attacks against its military base in Hmeymim. Iran is the third to blame for the acceleration of tension in the Idlib region. After the intensification of sanctions imposed by the U.S., Iran had to decrease its support for the Assad regime. The control over the Idlib region is now consider a must for the regime to get over the economic and political hardships.

The other actor, Turkey, has been trying to challenge the effectiveness of the other three actors, namely the regime, Russia and Iran. The Turkish reaction is the result of security and humanitarian concerns; therefore, it represents the other side of the conflict.

Different scenarios

There are three possibilities, alternatives or scenarios for the future of the Idlib region. According to the first possibility, the regime initiated a limited military operation for limited gains. The Russians want to secure the Hmeymim military base and to discourage terrorist groups from attacking Russian targets. In this regard, Turkey also expects to get rid of the threat in the Tel Rifaat region. The current situation causes problems for both Turkey and Russia. Therefore, Turkey and Russia must work together. Without the support of Turkey, the success of the struggle against terrorism will be limited.

According to the second alternative, the two main actors in the region, namely Russia and Turkey, will fashion new approaches. The two states may try to change the status quo on the ground in their favor after a limited military operation. For Turkey, the ultimate objective is to integrate the area with the regions liberated in the Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch operations under the joint control of the Syrian opposition and Turkey. However, since the cost of such an operation would be high, the result of it is uncertain. That is, Turkey may not see the expected benefits from the operation.

 The third option requires the cancellation of all agreements, the Astana process and the Sochi memorandum. This is the least likely scenario due to its political and humanitarian consequences. This option requires a comprehensive military operation, which will end up with a new wave of extremism and terrorism and a humanitarian disaster associated with a new refugee wave. Turkey and the developed European countries are the main destinations for the more than 3 million people who would be affected. Neither Turkey nor European countries will accept this result. Therefore, Turkey will probably take a hard stance against this option. A comprehensive military operation by the Assad regime and Russia will produce detrimental results for Turkey. It will weaken Turkey’s position in controlling the northern part of Syria, its struggle against the PKK and PKK-affiliated People’s Protection Units (YPG), its leverage at the negotiating table and its confidence in the eyes of the opposition forces.

In conclusion, the timing of the military operations is interesting. Considering that the concentration of other related actors is being spent on other regional issues, Russia and the Assad regime are trying to create a fait accompli, and both continue to anticipate little reaction from other actors. On one hand, U.S. policies have been preoccupied with the Gulf crisis and the Iranian state. On the other hand, Turkey has been dealing with domestic political issues such as the elections. However, the U.S., EU countries and most importantly, Turkey, will not accept a disadvantageous fait accompli. The deep interdependence between Turkey and Russia will not allow Russia to pursue a unilateral foreign policy in Syria.

[Daily Sabah 22 May 2019]

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