GAZIANTEP, Turkey—Russia and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have dealt what appears to be the death blow to Syria’s opposition over the last two weeks, and with it, any slight hopes that may have lingered from the memory of the Arab Spring.
Since Jan. 28, Russia and pro-Assad forces have seized more than 30 miles of rebel-held territory along the M5 highway in Idlib province, a major thoroughfare that links Damascus to Syria’s commercial hub of Aleppo. The road’s northern stretches have remained outside regime control since late 2011.
Following the Feb. 6 fall of Saraqib, the last large opposition stronghold located on the highway, just a handful of tiny villages now remain blocking the regime’s path along this route to the city of Aleppo, which already is under Assad’s control.
Turkey, the last lingering patron of the opposition, has proven unable to intervene effectively. On Tuesday, Special U.S. Envoy James Jeffrey traveled to Ankara to meet with Turkish officials, in what the latter hope will lead to tangible NATO support for an expanded confrontation with Russia. But as Ankara seeks assistance abroad, Russian and pro-Assad forces continue to chip away at what remains of opposition-held territory in Syria.
Since the fall of Saraqib, Turkey’s armed forces have deployed their biggest military convoy yet to shore up opposition forces in towns around Idlib city, in particular the Taftanaz military base, bringing the total number of Turkish troops in the area to 9,000. The convoys have included hundreds of armored trucks, dozens of tanks, special-forces troops, and radar-jamming equipment.
Yet despite this substantial show of force, Turkish troops have made no effort to stop Russia or the Assad regime’s continued advance along the M5, or elsewhere.
Throughout Monday, Russian and pro-Assad forces made a beeline west from the M5 toward the Turkish border, taking the town of Kafr Halab in an attempt to divide the northern and southern reaches of Idlib into separate pockets.
Shortly afterward, pro-Assad forces bombed Turkish troops at Taftanaz, killing six and wounding five in a strike similar to one that killed eight Turkish troops one week earlier. In both instances, the death of Turkish soldiers brought strong condemnation from politicians back home, but did nothing to provoke a tangible response on the ground.
Perhaps of greatest concern, the Russian-backed advance has brought pro-Assad forces to within less than five miles of Idlib city, the opposition’s last capital and largest population center, whose outer reaches are exposed to regime artillery and heavy weapons.
Idlib’s capture or even the launch of an assault on its environs threaten to spark what could become the biggest single exodus of people from Syria to date. Three million residents are trapped in the province as a whole.
THE TERRORIST FACTOR
The United States and Europe fear that among those who flee could be large numbers of al Qaeda-linked extremists.
“We’re very, very worried about this,” James Jeffrey, the U.S. special envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, said last Wednesday. “We could have a major refugee crisis on our hands with millions of people.” He estimated among them are some 7,000 to 10,000 members of al-Nusrah, a jihadi group originally affiliated with al Qaeda that has changed its name and ostensible allegiances over time. “Some of those are international terrorists,” said Jeffrey. “We have also other international terrorist groups there, al Qaeda offshoots and ISIS.”
On Saturday, a Russian delegation in Ankara concluded a round of talks with Turkish officials over the fate of Idlib province that produced no results. Many feel that Ankara will be unable on its own to live up to its pledges to protect Syrian rebels, and watch with baited breath for the results of Jeffrey’s visit in hopes that an increased U.S. role could alter the current balance.
THE RUSSIAN FRENEMY
Part of Turkey’s inability to act is due to pressure at home. A growing chorus of secular Turkish opposition parties that have become increasingly influential within the country, in addition to some of President Recip Tayyip Erdoğan’s own allies, have begun openly calling for Ankara to renege on its commitments to Syria’s opposition, normalize relations with Assad, and close its borders to Syrian refugees. The foremost among these, the Kemalist CHP, defeated Erdoğan’s AK Party in Istanbul’s June 2019 local elections, a crushing blow to the Turkish president that reflects his declining domestic approval.
Furthermore, Turkey is keen not to lose its relationship with Russia, an ally that it has pledged to work with to reduce the influence in Syria of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish separatist and internationally recognized terrorist group in Turkey, whose Syrian branch has been heavily backed by the U.S. because it played a critical role leading ground forces against ISIS. (In this complicated Syrian landscape, when President Trump tried to abandon these fighters, he had to reverse course under huge pressure from his military and many in Congress who normally support him. Moscow quickly exploited the chaos. )
Ankara is also reliant on Russia to help boost its economy, in a slump since the onset of the Turkish currency and debt crisis in early 2018. In a joint press conference with Putin on Aug. 27, Erdoğan said he wanted to quadruple Turkey’s annual bilateral trade with Russia from $25 billion to $100 billion and continue fruitful cooperation between both countries in the energy and defense sectors.
Now, unable to muster the leverage to halt the Russian-led assault, Erdoğan and his AK Party have been forced to watch the developments in Idlib with quiet desperation.
In addition to losing territory, many within the Syrian opposition fear they are witnessing the beginning of end of support from their Turkish patron, whose meek efforts to stop the Russian blitz have removed any pretense regarding Ankara’s support for what was the Syrian revolution.
“Turkey is powerless to stop Russia’s assault,” says Ammar al-Osman, a journalist based in Idlib city who has been reporting from the front lines. “As far as it looks to us, this campaign has been accepted by Ankara. So long as Russia and the regime don’t advance all the way to the border, Turkey will allow it.”
Ammar and many others believe that Turkey has allowed Russia to lay claim to the M5 highway while Ankara holds on to a pocket of territory along its frontier where the opposition and Idlib’s three million residents can stay without threatening Syrian regime assets or creating a new refugee crisis.
“Erdoğan is not trying to push militarily against Russia but rather establish a corridor around the M5 within reach of Turkish artillery that can be defended, and where these refugees can be hosted without crossing into Turkey,” says Soner Çağaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of Erdogan’s Empire: Turkey and the Politics of the Middle East. “Assad and Russia will probably let Turkey keep a small amount of territory,” he told The Daily Beast. “They want to control as much territory as possible,” he said, but “they also want as few people in it as possible, particularly those with opposition sympathies.”
Çağaptay says Assad and the Russians have “no problem” letting internally displaced persons “pile into this small territory along the Turkish border,” and suggests “probably 1,000 square miles will remain in Turkish hands.”
Many within the ruling AK Party already have begun preparing for such a possibility.
“I’ve spoken with AK Party officials who have told me they’re prepared for scenarios where the regime captures Idlib, creating a large wave of displaced people that arrive at the border and need to be hosted,” Gonul Tol, director of the Middle East Institute’s Center for Turkish Studies in Washington D.C., told The Daily Beast. “The Turkish government has already begun building camps in Syria along the border to prepare for this scenario. However there’s still some fear on their part, fear that they won’t be able to absorb all those who come, and that, push comes to shove, some will have to be allowed to enter Turkey itself.”
Far from their early visions of revolution and change that seemed within the grasp of Syrians and people throughout the Middle East nine years ago, the youth of the Arab Spring now find themselves reduced to living in a rump region along the border whose function seems limited to securing the Turkish frontier against the dual risk of refugees and armed Kurds threatening to pour across.
The most recent Russian assault shows the tough rhetoric employed in previous years by Ankara in support of the revolution has evanesced the way it did with other countries and been subordinated to realpolitik.
Predictions of an opposition pocket along the border linked to other Turkish occupied territory in the north Aleppo, Raqqa, and Hasakah countryside in Syria remind Ammar of a Turkish version of Israel’s Golan Heights.
“Just like Israel uses the Golan Heights to scout and watch for its enemies, Turkey’s going to keep a small slice of Idlib for itself in order to protect its border and make sure the PKK doesn’t cross,” he said. “However, in addition, they’re also going to be looking out for us, refugees. They don’t want us to come [across] either.”
‘REFUGEES GO HOME’
Idlib province is the last opposition stronghold in Syria. Since 2018, it has become home to hundreds of thousands of revolutionaries and guerrillas who fled other parts of the country taken over by pro-Assad forces after they refused to reconcile with the regime. Were Idlib to fall, they would be forced to choose between fleeing to Turkey or returning to government-held areas. For many, the latter is not an option.
“To every revolutionary/oppositionist born in Aleppo… we swear to God you will never see this city again for as long as you live,” declared Fares Shehabi, a member of the Syrian parliament from Aleppo and a prominent businessman, in a Feb. 3 Facebook post that has since been deleted. “You won’t even be buried here when you die. Your filthy wickedness will be ripped from the ground, forever. All revolutionaries are traitors.”
Combined with widespread reports of mass detentions of people in the Syrian opposition who have elected to return to government-held areas in recent years, statements like those made by Shehabi have strengthened the conviction among many Syrians that were they to return they’d be detained, tortured, or killed.
Unfortunately, entry into Turkey is also not a guarantee. It already is host to 5 million Syrian refugees, and any renewed influx of displaced Syrians fleeing the Russian-regime assault on Idlib province threatens to push Turkey’s population past its breaking point.
“There are few issues in Turkey that unite the population, including those who love and hate Erdogan,” says Soner Çağaptay. “The issue of refugees however, is one of them. After many years of generously hosting several million Syrians, Turks of all political persuasions have turned against them, largely because of the recent economic downturn. Even members of President Erdoğan’s own AK Party that support him on most everything else, want to see refugees leave.”
TURKEY’S DOMESTIC DIVIDE
Turkey’s reluctance to engage militarily in Idlib to support the opposition, despite Ankara’s substantial troop presence, can also partially be attributed to the country’s domestic divide. Erdoğan, whose approval ratings hover at around 40 percent, is keen to avoid behavior that could further strengthen the opposition.
“If this was late 2016, after the failed coup attempt, when much of the country was united around him, Erdoğan would have acted more boldly to the death of the Turkish soldiers,” said Tol. “However, following the June 2019 loss [in Istanbul], he can’t take any risks. Many Turks that don’t support Erdoğan view Turkey’s assistance to the opposition since 2011 and its military presence in Syria as inherently destabilizing and responsible for causing both the conflict and subsequent refugee crisis that followed. People are demanding that Turkish troops be kept safe, saying that it wasn’t our war to begin with.”
On Sept. 24, the CHP hosted its “International Syria Conference” in Istanbul calling for re-establishment of direct relations with Damascus and to facilitate the Syrians’ return to their lives back home “as freely as possible.”
Many criticized the conference for including too many pro-Assad figures while excluding members of the opposition. Shortly afterward, on Dec. 23, CHP spokesman Faik Öztra hosted a press conference in which he slammed the current Turkish government’s policy in Syria, which he described as “increasingly damaging” to Turkey’s foreign affairs and economy. He voiced opposition as well to citizenship for Syrians in Turkey.
Such sentiment even extends to some of Erdoğan’s own allies. Dogu Perincek, chairman of the Maoist far-left Patriotic Party and a virulent opponent of the PKK, became a close ally of Erdoğan in 2015 when the latter announced the government’s withdrawal from a ceasefire agreement with the Kurdish group.
Since then, many of Perincek’s supporters have been appointed to high-ranking positions in the Turkish military, especially following the failed 2016 Turkish coup that led to the purging of thousands of members of the Islamist “Gulen” movement thought to have been behind the attempt.
Perincek is also a founder of what has been dubbed the “Eurasianist” movement in Turkey that calls for closer Turkish ties with Russia and China. At the core of that ideology is the belief that Turkey should re-establish ties with and help strengthen the Assad regime as the best way of countering the influence of the PKK in Syria, which is at the core of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF.
“Perincek is a figure in Turkish politics who punches way above his weight,” said Tol, “despite having nearly no presence in Turkey’s parliament. Once Erdoğan dropped attempts to negotiate with the Kurds, he became a close ideologically ally. He believes the only way to get rid of the PKK and SDF in Syria is to ally with the Syrian regime. He recognizes that the Syrian regime has repressed Kurdish autonomy and rights in the past and believes maybe they could be convinced to do so again.”
Perhaps as a result, Erdoğan’s alliance with Perincek in 2015 preceded a broader shift in Turkish policy that year toward rapprochement with Russia, a country with close historical ties to the PKK, which Ankara hoped to exploit in order to combat the group’s rise in Syria. Following the United States’ withdrawal from parts of northeast Syria following Turkey’s October 2019 campaign against the SDF, Russia has filled the void to become even more influential with the Kurdish group.
Just as much of the Western world shifted its priorities and largely abandoned the Syrian opposition following the rise of ISIS, the threat of the U.S.-backed PKK-affiliated SDF group in Syria has forced Ankara to refocus at the expense of those it used to support.
Turkey’s shifting stance toward Syria was perhaps first publicly acknowledged on Oct. 14 amid the Turkish-led assault on Kurdish SDF forces in northeast Syria. That day, before a scheduled trip to Azerbaijan, Erdoğan told a press conference that he had “no problem” with the deployment of Assad regime troops to the Syrian-Turkish border town of Kobani, so long as it meant the withdrawal of the Kurdish-dominated SDF.
So where does this leave us? If long-term realistic guarantees of safety are provided by Assad and the Russians for those Syrians currently trapped in Idlib, full normalization with Damascus could well be on the way.