From Idlib to Afrin, Erdogan's 'the last supper'

by Gokcan Aydogan    

 

According to the legend, Midas' father, Gordios, is a poor villager, who came to the Phrygian city with an ox cart and was declared king by a prophecy. After the new king is proclaimed, Gordios tied the ox cart to the temple of the Phrygian God with a knot from the cranberry branches. The node is famous throughout the region, with the rumour that the person who will untie this node will dominate all of Asia. Alexander the Great tried to untie the knot when he came to the city, but he could not. He drew his sword with arrogance and cut the knot. He died at the age of 33 on the eve of the conquest of the Persian Empire and the domination of Asia. This untimely death is interpreted as the punishment of Alexander acting arrogantly instead of wisely untying the Gordian knot.

Today, to understand the situation in Idlib, it is necessary to go back in time. Perhaps not to mythological times but the early stages of the Syrian war. Erdogan acted to take his share from Syria which was weakened by war while his "close friend" Assad transformed into "enemy" Assad.

Everyone will remember the Syrian maps of the times when the civil war was at its height. The black regions represented the Islamic State, the red regions were the forces of Assad, the blue regions were the Free Syrian Army and the small jihadist organisations, and the yellow regions referred to the Syrian Democratic Forces. Erdogan provided financial, military, and diplomatic support to the organisations that formed the Free Syrian Army and other jihadist groups such as Ahmar al-Sham, Jaish al-Islam, and the Sultan Murad Brigade to pull his share from the war. At this point, Turkey took the position as the third guarantor of Astana talks besides Russia and Iran as the representative of these organisations.

 

"Red" and "yellow" spreading on the Syrian map

After YPG grabbed a slice of history with the Kobane resistance which drew the attention of the whole world, the Syrian-Turkish border line was cleared from the Islamic State with the support of the International Coalition. While the territory controlled by the YPG expanded in the direction of Raqqa, Assad scored a major victory with the regaining of Aleppo as the Syrian government began to regain lost fronts with the involvement of Russia in the war.

During the war, Turkey could not persuade the U.S. to join a coalition with their elements of the Free Syrian Army and other jihadist organisations which are in coordination with Turkey to fight against Islamic State. Erdogan watched the advance of the SDF with great dissatisfaction.

At this point, the military operations of the Syrian state in the Aleppo and Hama regions were seen as a great opportunity for Turkey. Erdogan, who agreed with Putin, ensured that the jihadists in Aleppo were convinced to evacuate the city, and arranged the transfer of jihadists with buses to Idlib which is under Al Nusra's control.

Thanks to the agreement, Erdogan "got permission" for the Euphrates Shield operation including in the Al-Bab and Jarablus regions, which would cut off the Kurds' connection between Afrin and Manbij cantons. This operation was very critical for Turkey, as it would prevent the Syrian Democratic Forces from controlling all of the Turkey-Syria borders. Turkey could keep itself in the game in Syria by creating a corridor from Turkey to Syria.

Putin was happy that the jihadists had been moved to Idlib for "annihilating later" because the transfer of the jihadists from Aleppo was a chance to concentrate on more strategic points that should be taken back from Islamic State, a relatively stronger enemy.

During the Euphrates Shield operation preparations, Erdogan carried some of the jihadists transferred to Idlib to the Azez region through Turkey by using the Antioch Cilvegozu Border Gate and Kilis Oncupinar Border Gate. Turkish forces were able to take control of the territory from Turkey's Kilis to Syria's Aleppo in a short time.

 

When the war is nearing the end: "Black" is about to run out, now the new target is "blue"

The downing of the Russian warplane by Turkey and the diplomatic-economic crisis with Russia in its aftermath seriously damaged the relationship between Turkey and Russia. Erdogan, for his part, refused to admit that he lost the initiative in Syria. Erdogan thought that he still had a say over Syria taking into account the jihadist organisations deployed in Idlib and the territory Turkey controls after the Operation of Euphrates Shield. However, Erdogan, who is involved in the war in Syria to "stop the Kurds" and take his share from Syria, seems to be unable to succeed, just like Alexander. Idlib is the clearest example of the situation. Erdogan, who is aiming to follow "one step backwards, two steps forward" like a Janissary band even if he cannot run at full gallop in Syria, moves one step forward and goes backwards by a long chalk.

Let's try to explain the situation in Idlib without naming the groups fighting each other or specifying their political position, in order not to create any confusion. When Erdogan transferred the jihadists to Idlib and then carried them to fight in Al-Bab and Jarablus under Euphrates Shield operation, he thought "that takes care of that".

In the Astana talks between Iran, Turkey, and Russia, Idlib and the territories controlled by the jihadist groups other than IS and Al-Nusra were planned as "de-escalation zones",  and the question of who controlled them was to be postponed. However, the Syrian-Russian-Iranian trio plans to not recognise the jihadist groups, and ensuring that they can get rid of these organizations just after taking back the control of the strategic points in Syria. Subsequently, there was a race between the US-led coalition and Russia-Syria-Iran-backed forces in the territories to be recaptured from IS. The most striking example is Deir al-Zor. The city is divided into two by the two coalition armies, much like Berlin after World War II.

Now, when the war against IS nearing its end, Russia and Iran pressured Erdogan to clean Idlib from Erdogan's "old friends". While "enemy" Assad is transforming back to "friend" Assad for Erdogan, he has started fighting for Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity. Of course, this is not a simple forced operation. Erdogan is planning to get a visa to Afrin- the Syrian Democratic Forces controlled the city- in return for clearing Idlib. To succeed in his goal, he is shuttling back and forth between Tehran and Moscow. On the other hand, Russia and Iran have not given the green light to Erdogan for Afrin because Putin wants to hold the Afrin card as a bargaining chip against Syrian Democratic Forces.

The other side of the fighting forces in Syria, the United States, is also very disturbed about the Idlib operation. Just one day after the operation was initiated in Idlib, the U.S. imposed restrictions on visas from Turkey. With the S-400 air defence systems bought from Russia and current cooperation attempts with Iran, escalating tensions peaked with Idlib.

The Turkish media presents the Idlib operation as an example of the heroism of the Turkish army. However, it is unlikely that Idlib will end like a heroic tale because Idlib borders Syria's coastal cities Latakia and Tartus. Russia has plans to transfer the oil and natural gas of Syria and the region through a pipeline from these two cities to Europe via a route outside of Turkish territory. For this reason, the inevitable end for Turkey will be to surrender Idlib to Assad after it is cleared from jihadists. There is almost no chance that Erdogan's strategy in Idlib will succeed. Now, he is trying to persuade Al Nusra and other jihadist organizations of his plan using little "stimulating" attacks. He wants to collect the jihadists around his plans with as few losses as possible and to continue his existence in Syria. However, even if a part of Al Nusra agrees with Erdogan, there is a great backlash against the occupation of Idlib. It seems that the operation will not be completed without Turkey entering into a major battle in the city. When the operation is completed, Idlib will be handed over to Assad’s forces. If we think that the dreams of attacking Afrin have not been rejected just yet, the situation seems underwhelming for Erdogan.

Moreover, if Al Nusra being a widespread organisation in Turkey is considered, it is very likely that war in Idlib might come to bite many cities of Turkey.

Erdogan, whose short-term plan is to break the dominance of the Syrian Democratic Forces in Afrin, seems unable to do so.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Monday said that he hopes a ceasefire will be observed in Afrin, in reaction to Turkish threats to attack Afrin in northern Syria. "As for the situation in Afrin and Syria overall ... We are seeking full compliance with the ceasefire agreements," Lavrov said. It's crystal clear that Russia is not fully convinced about abandoning the Kurds.

Putin firstly got the jihadists out of his way with the help of Erdogan and is now using the Turkish Army to clear Idlib from jihadists.  Turkey bought the S-400 air defence systems from Russia as a goodwill gesture which created tensions in Turkey's relations with the U.S. and NATO. In return, Turkey only regained its right to sell tomatoes to Russia. Idlib became the last straw, and Turkey took its place alongside Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Chad, North Korea and Venezuela as countries on which the United States imposed travel restrictions.

Erdogan’s vow to one day pray in Damascus’ Umayyad mosque ended up with Erdogan entering the Syrian war as Alexander once did -- swaying his with anger and arrogance to untie the knot. Now, his hands are hog-tied in Idlib. Even if not as massive as Alexander's dreams, Erdogan was planning to get "his share" in the Middle East motivated by his dreams of neo-Ottomanism. However, Alexander lost his life in the 15th year of his ruling without accomplishing his dreams. Erdogan has started to make his calculations of how to hold power in his hands in the 15th year of his rule by taking the least amount of damage from the war in Syria that he got Turkey into because of his neo-Ottoman dreams.

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