If FRN has followed and understood anything, it’s that events are rarely as they appear. Turkey is no doubt involved in a very high level military-diplomatic maneuver in its handling of Idlib. Simplistic or dismissive attitudes towards Erdogan in terms of his balance of cunning and ambition have little place in geopolitical forecasting and geostrategic analysis.
Turkey’s plan to ‘save lives’ is a plan to seize Idlib for itself. What it does with it afterward, remains to be seen.
Given Turkey’s balancing between the Astana agreement and now jumping on the ‘Save Idlib civilians’ bandwagon (or charade, if you will) witnessed at the UN a few days, which Bentley wrote about for FRN, we can conclude that there are a few possibilities. He makes the convincing case that if the US were going to attack, it would have already by now.
What’s critical here then is Turkey. The U.S would love to have Russian and Iranian forces, with Syria, come in to open conflict with Turkey. That would place Erdogan in an extremely narrow position, and would ruin Russian led efforts to minimally orient Turkey as a Russia-friendly regional hegemon, emerging from more overt Atlanticist control.
Turkey is involved a maneuver to better its position, this goes without saying. Turkey may be planning to simply seize Idlib for itself. Most of the FSA fighters have been armed and supported by them in this phase of the war, and in this theatre, in the north of Syria bordering Turkey. Erdogan has been to these Salafists, Turkomen, and mercenaries what Putin has been towards Novorossian militias. There’s a love/hate relationship at times, and right now Erdogan is trying to gather up the love.
Turkish flags in ‘ethnic Turkish’ parts of Idlib province, and portraits of Erdogan, have adorned schools and hospitals, and public offices in what is in fact Turkish occupied Syria for some time. Is that going to be ‘undone’ any time, or any time soon? Perhaps, perhaps not.
At the same time, we cannot forget that Turkey’s economy has been in a pronounced free-fall for some time, and this became headline news just one month ago, almost to the day. This came as the general thrust of their war ambitions have gone up in smoke, quite literally when the Russian airforce bombed the ISIS oil-trucks, led and owned by Erdogan’s own son. Remember that this is when ISIS was being partly bankrolled by stolen Syrian gas. The end to that, and to Turkey’s economy, seemed to co-align sometime in 2015, although Turkey had been involved in trying to simultaneously recover from the 2007 world market crash that started in the US with its toxic derivatives and housing market Ponzi scheme, and emerge as a more sovereign, independent power.
Recall then that it’s China who stepped in and said they would be come to Turkey’s rescue. This, as today China seems to have resolved to become more fully engaged in the Syrian conflict. China has been sending out its feelers through generally true (in the future tense/sense) leaks, that FRN reported on for the last two years, that it was gearing up to directly engage. China isn’t going to do much in terms of Turkey if Turkey and China go toe to toe. That’s not to say that China won’t do business with geopolitical competitors, but it’s Turkey that needs China – the Chinese economy isn’t Turkey dependent. China’s ‘aid’ to Turkey is about giving it an ‘out’ from IMF hell, which would likely come with so much turmoil within Turkey that Erdogan himself may eventually be forced out. His ambitions are to be president for life. These are the times we live in.
All in all this means that Turkey may be up to something else entirely. With China holding financial aid over its head, what Turkey is doing may be a backdoor ruse to disarm the Americans and negotiate a separate peace.
Or, again, it may be a plan to outright seize Idlib for keeps. Either way, Turkey is bent on at least making a move to take Idlib, and will use holding it as a bargaining chip. Whether they will ultimately trade it back for something else, or not, is a separate issue from how they will take and hold Idlib.
Saving the Al Qaeda-merged FSA, however, is something Turkey is going to insist on. Russia and Syria can negotiate that part with Turkey, and none of these millions of innocent people’s lives need to be placed in jeopardy of Turkey can play ball one way or another. Putin cannot be offended, and takes none of these things personally. It’s Al Jazeera that’s promoted the ‘Idlib slaughter-house story’ as an inevitability for some time. Qatar has sent more money to Erdogan to save their end of the story. Iranian media backed off of holding Qatar responsible for the Syrian conflict since 2015 or thereabouts, as Iran increasingly saw the practicality of gaining Qatari support ultimately for any move Iran would make to take control of the Hormuz Strait, as it has just recently officially declared.
The media holograph about what percentage of not, of Idlib residents support or don’t support the jihadi terrorists occupying the city is not very relevant or pertinent. There are various polls supposedly out there, but these become less meaningful once we take into account things like Collective Stockholm Syndrome, or Manufacturing Consent.
So this is how Turkey will take Idlib for itself, and is more than likely working aggressively on these parts right now.
The most clear conditions of a beneficial settlement in Idlib for Turkey, proposed by the former Ottoman power, are the following:
1.) Merging the pro-Turkish armed groups chiefly the Turish-backed FSA (or TFSA) into the so-called, and recently reformed ‘Syrian National Army’. This means the entry and integration of all the pro-Turkish armed groups of all the battalions of “opposition” into the “Syrian National Army”. This ‘Army’ will be enough basic security purposes, the creation of local administrations and public service authorities or organisations.
2.) Turkey will be a guarantor for the development, implementation, and supervision of all public services for a five year period. In other words, Turkey through the “Syrian National Army” which will include as well security forces and service bodies, will work towards the absolute legitimization of the armed terrorist groups. Through the control of services and institutions, the Syrian north will function like an autonomous region.
3.) The removal of every citizen or local population in Idlib who does not agree to the conditions of this settlement. This displacement will definitely change the demographic composition of the entire North of Syria, as already, thousands of Syrians left the area as a result of its present ‘governance’ at the hands of the FSA (or TFSA), which comprises many of the same forces as Turkish-backed ISIS, or TISIS. This part is critical to 4.
4.) With these moves, Turkey will push forward plan for the possible autonomy of Idlib, and it’s possible integration to Turkey, by a referendum on the independence of the province, after a few years (perhaps 5, or maybe 10).
Turkey will have to position itself, and show the capacity to do the above. But it will have to work again in close proximity to the US and British forces working, though in smaller numbers, in order for these moves to work in such a way that still give Turkey the bargaining power it needs.
Therefore, it is not as easy as it seems to be. Turkey requires sovereign decision making as much as possible, and will have to work, on some level, with Russia, Iran, and Syria, to remove the U.S and British forces in such a way that U.S and British forces see it to their advantage that Turkey administers Idlib rather than Damascus. All of these pieces together, however, will position Turkey to trade these pieces for something more important than territorial expansion, as it has done in so far at least nominally with the Kurdish question.