The Turkish plan: ‘safe zone’? Ankara has other goals than fighting Assad

There has long been an interest on the part of Turkey in reaching a “security zone” that is as continuous as possible from northwest Syria to the northeast of the country

Source: Sergei Chirikov / Reuters

The Syrian army has gained control of the transport link between the capital Damascus and the economic center Aleppo, as reported today. The Assad government has thus reached an important milestone. Does this alleviate the tensions in the Idlib area and the Aleppo area? The fighting in the area continues.

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The role of Turkey is opaque. It is evident that their line-up of heavy military equipment in Idlib is considerable and, according to information from the Turkish medium TRT, command units of the Turkish army have also been dispatched to the observation posts in Idlib.

Turkey entirely on the side of the “Syrian Revolution”?

There are pictures of militias of the “National Syrian Army” (a continuation of the militia alliance FSA) who climb into armored transport vehicles with Turkish flags and are said to be heading for Idlib. This caused a report in the Kurdish medium ANF that jihadists of the militia alliance are now dressed in Turkish uniforms and would be stationed in Idlib in order to stop “the advance of Russian and Syrian troops” there. Some reports even suggest that Turkey now fully supports the militia opposition in the fight against the government in Damascus.

However, the Syrian Army’s success story above contradicts this. If the Turkish leadership were really serious about thwarting the Assad government’s plans for war, the arsenal and troops it had brought to Idlib would have given them the option of preventing the conquest of the section of the M5 expressway, or up to to delay further.

However, that would have increased tensions with Russia. It is quite possible that with the military invasion of Idlib, Turkey has a goal in mind that it is negotiating with Russia, and control of the transport link is part of the bargaining process.

So far, nothing has been said about the course of the Russian-Turkish talks. From the developments in Russian-Turkish relations, however, at the latest since the entry of Turkish troops into Afrin at the beginning of 2018, it can be concluded that both sides are not interested in a confrontation, but in working out common interests.

There has long been an interest on the part of Turkey in reaching a “security zone” that is as continuous as possible from northwest Syria to the northeast of the country. The establishment of a security zone in Idlib would fit in with Turkish plans.

The refugees

The military deployment of Turkey in Idlib is linked to the large number of internally displaced people. Whether it is almost a million who have fled Idlib since mid-2019, or 600,000, of which Turkish media report with reference to the UN, there is no talk of a humanitarian catastrophe in view of the winter and the supply and accommodation needs exaggerated.

For Turkey it is foreseeable that this can lead to enormous pressure at its borders, which is why the government in Ankara has the chance to convince the EU of its intentions, as the French Syria specialist Fabrice Balanche argues in his current management report. According to him, Turkey has little opportunity to deal with the problem of refugees at its borders.

The first would be to open the border with Turkey, the other he puts it like this:

“The current version of the Turkish plan is to create a 32 km deep “buffer zone” going from Tigris in northeastern Syria to Idlib and then to bring as many Syrian refugees as possible there. However, that would mean increasing the resumption of military operations against the Syrian Kurds in order to conquer border locations that the Turkish military and its proxy militias are not yet in control of.” Fabrice Balanche

The Europeans, who have been unsuspecting about the situation in Syria several times in the past nine years, could possibly be persuaded to help with a lot of money and political background support. The fear of the next “wave of refugees” is on the neck of the EU governments and Macron’s resistance is likely to remain limited.

The test of power with the al-Qaida militia HTS

But: There are big obstacles in Idlib alone. The HTS militia ruling there, which militarily and politically dominates all other groups as well as the population, will not readily adhere to Turkish intentions, regardless of signs of episodic cooperation with Turkey and likely secret service agreements. With her military capabilities for asymmetrical warfare, she can make life very difficult for a Turkish occupation, which this “security zone” would also amount to.

The observation posts manned by Turkey in Idlib are signs of this dependence and vulnerability. Turkey cannot occupy or supply them without moving the HTS terrain. There is no information yet about the reaction to Turkey’s increased military presence in Idlib in the leadership of the jihadist militia. It is obvious that the Turkish march in Idlib is a test of power with the HTS.

It is known that the HTS is trying ideologically to identify a distance from Turkey, anything else would endanger its existence as “Syrian revolutionaries”. However, the Modus vivendi in Idlib was secured by Turkey in recent years. With Turkey as a determined opponent, the al Qaeda child’s chances of survival would have been poor. This was also possible through the cooperation of militias with the HTS, such as parts of the Ahrar al-Sham militia, which were supported by Turkey.

How will the other Islamist proxy militia that Turkey sends to Idlib behave towards HTS? Among them will be many fighters who have changed groups and radicals of their Islamist beliefs several times. The money and prospects associated with Turkish support are likely to be no small factor in influencing behaviors.

It is conceivable that the militia alliance of the National Syrian Army will try to get HTS militias on their side, especially since there have been protests against their rule among the population. The arms of the Turkish army are a good demonstration of power for such negotiations.


There could also be a common basis with the Syrian government, provided Russian mediation is interested and has the opportunity to convince Assad and the leadership around him that a Turkish “security zone” in Idlib would also be a temporary solution for Damascus.

As long as the strategically important conquests of the Syrian army in southern Idlib and Homs, as well as in the Aleppo area, were not affected by the security zone – and the connecting roads remain free – there would be a certain scope for negotiations.

The government in Damascus is unable to take big steps because of the economic situation, the grueling fighting and major war damage in the country. It relies on Russia and Iran, both of whom are likely to think that Turkey is the lesser evil against the al-Qaida militia HTS.

But things are not so easy. The tone between the Syrian government and the Turkish government is now war cries rather than de-escalation. After Turkey retaliated against five Turkish soldiers killed by the Syrian army and announced it loudly, there is a lot of mediation to do for Russia.

The Kurds and the United States

As announced by the Kurdish self-government, Russia should also mediate between SDF representatives and Damascus. This suggests the possibility that the SDF could ally itself with the Syrian army against Turkey at the price of maintaining a special position for the Kurdish administration in Syria. There is no reliable basis for this, there are a lot of scenarios that, according to insiders, will be discussed.

Since the United States gave the “green light” to the Turkish invasion of Tal Abyad (Gire Spi) and Ras al’Ain (Sere Kaniye) in October last year, the Kurds’ confidence in the leadership in Washington has been shaken. This is confirmed by statements made by Trump’s Government Commissioner for Syria, who spoke out clearly in favor of Erdogan.

There are other signals from the United States, such as the establishment of a military base near Hasaka and the SDF will receive the same amount of financial support from Washington this year as before, but it can be assumed that the United States will be careful to keep Turkey in their own camp.

Any leeway that Turkey gets comes with relocations – as Ankara imagines – on a large scale – and areas that were previously peaceful are no longer after the Turkish military invasion. On the contrary, they are dealing with a lot of violence. These are experiences from Afrin and from the area occupied by Turkey in northeastern Syria since October 2019. The fact that the German public knows little about this is related to an information policy that has made PR workers in the service of Erdogan from the Turkish media

According to the Kurds, the residents of the territories occupied by Turkey must be afraid. More refugees are now coming from Idlib to areas of self-government in northeastern Syria. Including families of jihadist fighters. [end]


The author of the article is Thomas Pany. Thomas Pany studied political science with Kurt Sontheimer at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, plus modern history and Semitic studies. The original article has been published in Telepolis. Translation and editing by Defenseweek’s team.

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