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The Battle of Idlib: A New Migrant Crisis or a Major Geopolitical Moment?

BLOG - 12 March 2020

On February 27, a squadron of Russian and Syrian fighters hit a position occupied by the Turkish army in the Idlib region, killing 33 Turkish soldiers. The Russians later explained that the Turks, who had come as reinforcements to resist the Assad regime’s offensive targeting the last rebel-held enclave, had not reported their presence. Their location would have also been indistinguishable from positions held by jihadist groups.

The first round of the Battle of Idlib

In reality, it is more likely that Moscow has engaged in what strategists call an "escalation towards de-escalation", quite comparable in principle to the elimination by the United States of General Soleimani on January 3 in Baghdad. In the days that followed, the Turks responded with violent attacks, including drone attacks, on Syrian air defense systems and units of the Syrian army and Hezbollah. At least two Syrian aircraft were shot down. The Damascus offensive against Idlib was halted and the regime suffered heavy casualties – with no Russian intervention nor, naturally, Russian forces being targeted by the Turks. In other words, Russia had indeed stopped the Turkish intervention in the Idlib area, while allowing Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to save face through his army teaching a "lesson" to the Damascus regime. Neither Moscow nor Ankara had any interest in prolonging the arm wrestling: the conditions were ripe for a compromise between the two players that would freeze the situation.

Erdoğan and Putin therefore agreed on a ceasefire, in Moscow on March 5, seemingly endorsing the advances of the regime's forces in the province, particularly control of the motorway linking Aleppo to Damascus, and replacing the Sochi agreement of September 2018.

In parallel with this series of events, the Turkish President called on his Atlantic allies for support. Washington was sending out positive signals but was refraining from supplying the Patriot surface-to-air missiles requested by Ankara. It is difficult for the Americans to let go of the dispute between NATO and Turkey over the latter's purchase of the Russian S-400 missiles. With the Europeans, President Erdoğan used a counterproductive and odious method that he is particularly familiar with. He started sending a few thousand refugees, mostly non-Syrians, to the borders of Greece and Bulgaria, triggering an immediate reaction from European governments that they reject "Turkey’s blackmail".

 The images of a million unfortunate people fleeing in freezing cold to improvised camps near the hermetically sealed Turkish border are beginning to shock people's consciences.

Our world is one of rapid changes of collective perceptions. Since the end of last year and even more so since the beginning of February, public opinion in Europe had been increasingly troubled by Russian air attacks and the Assad regime’s atrocious bombings targeting civilian populations in the Idlib region. The images of a million unfortunate people fleeing in freezing cold to improvised camps near the hermetically sealed Turkish border are beginning to shock people's consciences. Thanks to Mr. Erdoğan, and traumatized by the 2015-episode, Europeans are once again polarized regarding a new so-called migration crisis. The Turkish President's visit to Moscow on March 5 had led to somewhat of a truce between Turkey and Russia.

Erdoğan's visit to Brussels on March 9 re-established to some extent a dialogue between the EU and Turkey, probably with the promise of new European funding for the implementation of the 2016 EU-Turkey agreement on migrants.

A major geopolitical moment

It would be regrettable if, in the calculations of European leaders, the conflictual relationship with Erdoğan on this issue was to prevail over a lucid assessment of the major geopolitical moment resulting from the Battle of Idlib, which is inseparable from the migratory risk.

To characterize this moment, let us note first that it is becoming increasingly clear that the war in Syria is not over. One of the issues at stake in its current phase is Turkey’s fate between Russia, Europe and the Atlantic Alliance. Putin is treating Erdoğan harshly, as we have just seen in Moscow. The Russian media are broadcasting a video of the Turkish delegation standing in an antechamber waiting to be received by the Kremlin’s main man. Putin has an interest in continuing his operations to keep Turkey distant from NATO. Erdoğan gives the impression that he is ready to submit to the Russian President for two reasons. First, he is largely driven by resentment towards the West, and second, Russia has the means to get Erdoğan out of the mess he has got his country into in Syria (or, on the contrary, to raise the cost of Turkey's armed engagements in that).

Finally, the 5 March Moscow agreement offers only short respite to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. There will be a second round in the Battle of Idlib, and it is not completely certain that the Russian-Turkish agreement can really be implemented. Some of its provisions, such as the secure corridor cutting the zone in two along the East-West axis and to be monitored by Russian-Turkish patrols, seem very complicated. Above all, the Assad regime remains determined to recapture the entire province.

The Russians will be inclined to support him on this point for various reasons, including the fact that among the 40 to 50,000 rebels who remain in the area of the Idlib province still under Turkish control, a good number are jihadists affiliated with al-Qaeda, and not only in the large battalions of Tahrir Hayat al-Sham (HTS). Several particularly harmful, and Russian-speaking, groups more or less directly threaten the Russian bases in Hmeimim and Latakia. This is where Erdogan's great weakness vis-à-vis Putin lies. In Sochi in September 2018, the Turkish President had pledged to sort jihadist armed groups from the others in order to turn the latter against the former. Turkey has failed to do so...

In September 2018, the Turkish President had pledged to sort jihadist armed groups from the others in order to turn the latter against the former. Turkey has failed to do so...

It is also suspected that it has not truly made an effort to do so, given how ambiguous its relations with many of these groups seem to be.

Under these circumstances, the future of the agreement seems relatively predictable. The ceasefire, under the current conditions, is unlikely to hold. Once the regime has regained its strength, it will resume the reconquest of the Idlib province, with support from the Russians. The Turks may again pull out their swords and resume the battle, as they did with undoubtable effectiveness this February. Can they really cope with a further deployment of Russian force if Putin decides this time to end it? Will Ankara have any other choice but to try and obtain a new "security corridor", this time along its border, in order to at least keep an agreement on a "buffer zone" intended to prevent a mass arrival of Syrian refugees? 3.5 million of them are currently in the Idlib region. This is in any case the scenario that Westerners should reflect on. This brings with it a probability of large-scale massacres, given Assad's and Russia's strategy of targeting civilian populations, as well as the resistance that armed groups will put up in response.

It also carries two major dangers. On the one hand, major population displacements – and infiltration by terrorists – as the Turks may not be able to plug the inevitable breaches that will open up on their borders. For the sake of humanity, one must hope that such gaps do exist, but Erdogan will not hesitate to open the floodgates to Europe as well. On the other hand, whatever form the regime and its sponsors’ reconquest of Idlib takes, there is a very high risk that it will result in maximum resentment on the part of Recep Tayyip Erdogan towards his allies, whom he will not fail to accuse of treason.

After what has just happened in the province of Idlib, Europeans and Americans alike should stop looking the other way regarding the Syrian crisis. They cannot anymore count on one last spasm definitely bringing the lid down on the Syrian people. Besides, this geopolitical moment that has just been mentioned reopens a possibility for action.

One lesson from recent events is that Europe needs Turkey and Turkey needs its Atlantic allies. Erdogan's exclusive tête-à-tête with Putin places the former in the hands of the latter. It is in this spirit that Chancellor Merkel has proposed the establishment of a no-fly zone, banning military air operations over Idlib. This long-standing idea comes up against the fact that Russia certainly has no intention of depriving itself of control over any fraction of the airspace. Is it however not time for Europeans to at least partially re-engage with Turkey and on the Syrian issue?

  • Re-engagement with Turkey. The angle through which it is possible to resume a more productive dialogue with Ankara would be to provide Turkey with concrete support for implementing the Moscow agreement on Idlib. NATO could, for example, help Turkey strengthen its defenses for the next showdown and provide the Turks with other reassurances. A considerable effort must also be made on the humanitarian front. Where Turkey's allies – in a coalition – could make a real difference would be in providing technical support in the difficult task of sorting out armed groups combating HTS and other jihadists. If the Turkish government does not clarify its strategy on this point and, to put it bluntly, does not cut the Gordian knot of its dangerous connections, the inevitable resumption of the Battle of Idlib can only end badly for them.
     
  • A qualified re-engagement. Supporting Turkey on Idlib does not mean excursing it from all other disputes that Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in the course of his external adventures, has with his Atlantic allies. Support for Idlib would put the Westerners in a better position to raise with the Turks – and especially with Turkish public opinion and the Turkish political class where Erdogan is more and more isolated – the difficult disputes that remain standing: Turkish policy in the North-East of Syria, the S-400 missile, violation of Cypriot sovereignty, intervention in Libya and especially the arms embargo.
     
  • Re-involvement in the Syrian dossier in order to relaunch a political dialogue. If the Europeans should let go of an illusory rapid ending to the game in Syria, President Putin also should see that concluding his campaign in Syria may prove to be very difficult. In Idlib, in recent weeks, we have moved away from a scenario in which Russia has almost sole control over the balance of power. Time has perhaps come for Putin to engage in real negotiations, as he is the only one who can reconcile his own agenda with those of Turkey and the West. If the West is able to support the Turks on Idlib and if the Trump administration maintains its policy of strangling the Assad regime with the Caesar Act, it would be in the West’s interest to take this initiative up again with a view to a political settlement.

For Assad, but also for Russia, in line with its policy in Chechnya, forced population displacement is not collateral damage but rather a strategic objective in and of itself.

Is another approach not possible, in the face of the dilemmas posed by the aftermath of the Battle of Idlib? Some propose the following: an intransigent attitude towards Erdogan and a collaboration with Russia in Syria, implying of course reconnecting with Assad. They find new arguments in support of this thesis, primarily in the need to "face the migratory wave". Let us note an essential point on this subject, well highlighted by Alain Frachon in his Le Monde editorial on March 6: for Assad, but also for Russia, in line with its policy in Chechnya, forced population displacement is not collateral damage but rather a strategic objective in and of itself.

Assad is pursuing in his country a policy of demographic engineering which virtually all experts now recognize. He will do nothing to spare or retain the three million Sunnis trapped in the Idlib mountains, just as he does not want the vast majority of Syrians who fled his regime and the civil war abroad to return. Very few of them, moreover, envisage a return to their country as long as Assad remains in Damascus. As for the Russians, can we seriously think that they do not appreciate all the gains that the migration crisis has brought them in Europe?

One would have been very credulous indeed to believe that Russia and Assad can be allies in alleviating the obsessive fear of migrants in public opinions and among decision-makers in Europe.

 

Copyright : Pavel Golovkin / POOL / AFP

 

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