Q – Why is a small Syrian town topping the world’s diplomacy agenda nowadays?
A – The town of Idlib, which is also the name of the province, is in the northwest of Syria and some 35 kilometers from the Turkish border. It is the stronghold of an array of Sunni jihadist groups. Among them, there are terrorist elements, some of which belong to Daesh (ISIL), which managed to escape Aleppo, Raqqa and Manbij, but mostly al-Qaeda-affiliated groups. International actors are divided over how to get rid of them, which could lead to a new stage to open in the seven-year Syrian war and the fight against terrorism.
Q – Why are countries divided over getting rid of the terrorists?
A – Countries are divided over how to get rid of the terrorists there. The Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus is for a radical solution, recalling previous raids on other cities with methods including the use of chemical weapons, without separating terrorists from civilians. U.S. President Donald Trump has warned Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who are the main allies of Assad, against a large-scale military operation, emphasizing on refraining from using chemical weapons. Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan, on the other hand, is also against a military operation, concerned of another wave of migration and a possible infiltration of terrorists into Turkey.
Q – How many terrorists are there?
A – Estimates of security units indicate the presence of 60,000 jihadist militants in the province, nearly 15,000 of them are in the category of “foreign terrorist fighters.” The estimates show around 600 of them are from European countries, some 6,000 from Chechnya and Russian Caucasus and some 7,000 from Central Asia, mostly Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Russia and China. If those terrorists manage to escape Idlib, they might want to go back to their countries and most probably use Turkish territory, which bothers Russia, China and, of course, Turkey.
Q – Does Turkey want to avoid a military action against terrorists?
A – No. Turkey wants to avoid a collateral damage that will cause civilian casualties and trigger another migration wave, which could put EU countries under pressure too. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu suggests terrorists should be separated from civilians through better cooperation between the spy agencies of countries that are involved in Syria. Turkey recently added Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) on its terrorist organizations list, in order to show its willingness to both the U.S. and Russia and also give time to those militants who would like to use their last chance to leave the terrorist group before an anti-terror operation.
Q – Which countries have presence in Syria?
A – Russia has a strong presence in Syria, as invited by Assad, an upgraded naval base in the Mediterranean port of Tartus and an air force base in Hmeymim, near Latakia, along with a heavy presence of its intelligence agency SVR. Iran has thousands of members of its Islamic Revolutionary Guards units and the Lebanese Hezbollah militia that it backs, again at the invitation of Damascus. The U.S. controls almost all of the Syrian territory in the east of the Euphrates River as a result of the ground support of the Syrian branch of the PKK, despite Turkey’s objection, which both countries consider a terrorist organization. The U.S. has the CIA and its special forces in Syria. Turkey has a military presence in two pockets along its borders, controlled by its army and the Free Syrian Army (FSA) militia through its intelligence agency, the National Intelligence Organization (MİT). Israel’s MOSSAD has intelligence from the Syria ground and carries out air raids on targets in Syria, claiming they are Iranian positions. And Saudi Arabia has a presence in the Syria theatre, not with its military but through intelligence services and huge amounts of money.
Q – What do these countries want?
A – Turkey thinks Assad must go, but a Baathist regime could take part in a transition within the territorial unity of Syria, which means no Kurdish autonomy there. Russia thinks a federate solution could be better for Syria with limited autonomy for Kurds and Sunnis, as well as the Alawite core of the regime. The U.S. wants to stay on the ground until it is sure Daesh is completely defeated and prefers a fair representation of Sunnis and Kurds in Damascus rather than regime change. Iran wants to stay in Syria for as long as possible, after increasing its influence over Iraq thanks to the U.S. invasion. Iran also wants to have a Shiite corridor to the Mediterranean through Syria and Lebanon. But Saudi Arabia doesn’t want that. Riyadh wants to support Sunnis in Syria, but at the same time pours money into the fight against Sunni-dominated terrorist groups. Israel, on the other hand, doesn’t want Iran in Syria and wants a weaker Syria, regardless of who rules it.
Q – When can the crisis be solved?
A – It depends on the results of the Astana group’s talks in Tehran. On Sept. 6, the foreign ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran are going to meet, and on Sept. 7, the countries’ leaders will meet to discuss Idlib, possibly linking it with the Geneva talks for the future of Syria. Turkey is the only NATO member in the group. The U.S. is not sending any observers to Tehran, unlike the EU and the U.N. All eyes are now on the Tehran meeting on Idlib.