Islamist rebels trying to demolish a statue of former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad in Idlib. AFP file photo
Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdogan hinted the other day that in Syria a political solution and transition to bring an end to the bloody four-and-a-half-year-old conflict could be concluded either with or without the removal of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
He told reporters that, “The process could possibly be without Assad, or the transitional process could be with him.”
The possible implications of this simple statement are well worth evaluating. This is, after all, the first time Erdogan has indicated that Ankara might accept an overall solution to the conflict which would see to Assad actively playing a role in a transition in Syria is indicative that things are changing. Erdogan's view, as he said, of the Syrian dictator may not have changed one iota, but his statement does imply that Turkish policy has undergone a substantive change on the Assad question.
The backdrop to which this noteworthy statement was made also reinforces the likelihood that a major change is indeed afoot.
Erdogan has for years now been calling for the establishment of a buffer-zone in northwestern Syria to shield armed opponents of the Assad regime from air attack as well as allow many Syrian refugees to remain safe and secure in a part of their own country. As recently as last summer there were renewed talks about the establishment of such a zone, but once again it amounted to only talk, nothing tangible. The only notable successes Turkey has had against Assad in Syria has been through its support of the Islamist umbrella group the Jaish al-Fatah (Army of Conquest), a group which includes the al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra Front (JN). Those Islamist's successfully overran large swaths of Syria's northwestern Idlib Province last May.
Idlib is very important to the Syrian regime. The shock of its loss had arguably much more serious reverberations in Damascus than its loss of vast swaths of its less densely populated northeastern province of Raqqa to ISIS in 2014. Especially since Idlib borders the strategically important province of Hama and the coastal province of Latakia which is home to many members of Syria's Alawite community. The latter of which is where the Russian military is presently establishing a presence.
It's likely Assad would like to retake Idlib from the Army of Conquest before turning his guns on ISIS. However Turkish support for that group has been decisive and they have successfully managed to cut-off two Shia-majority villages (Al-Fuah and Kafaraya) which they have been bombarding for months now. This comes as the Syrian military, in tandem with its Shi'ite militia Hezbollah allies, also trapped Nusra members in the strategically important Syrian resort town of Al-Zabadani near Damascus. Which has seen to the emergence of a situation in which Assad can't do anything to assist Shia supporters of his regime trapped in those Idlib villages and Nusra can't do anything to assist their comrades trapped in Zabadani. Aside from negotiate a comprehensive ceasefire settlement that is.
Ankara and Tehran have been negotiating on behalf of their respective allies in Syria. Ankara on behalf of the Army of Conquest and Tehran on behalf of its ally and client in Damascus. This has seen to the negotiating of a very comprehensive ceasefire accord which is aimed at allowing Nusra members in Zabadani safe-passage up north to Idlib and the populations of Al-Foua and Kafaraya safe-passage south to territory still controlled by the Assad regime. Whether this agreement can succeed has yet to be seen. But that it was reached is informative in its own right.
The successful implementation of a long-term freeze in Idlib will allow the Army of Conquest to retain their hold large swaths of the Idlib including the provincial capital. Which would in turn make it the first provincial capital to be lost completely by the regime since Raqqa that they initially lost in March 2013 to anti-Assad fighters who themselves would lose it to ISIS by January 2014.
A de-facto no-fly zone is also set to be established over Idlib as part of this ceasefire (since May the Syrian Air Force has dropped a large number of barrel bombs in areas occupied by these Islamists) which would in turn make Idlib a “safe-zone” in which those armed Islamist opponents of Assad could consolidate their control. Something that Erdogan's long-proposed buffer-zone had sought to do. Remember back in mid-2013 the Turkish government even gave the Nusra group control of a border-crossing in the northern Syrian town of Tal Abyad as part of their efforts to enable anti-Assad groups to wrest Syrian territory from Assad's control, meaning that if they done the same via proxy in Idlib it wouldn't be unprecedented.
Whether or not Turkey seeks to “police” this no-fly zone over Idlib would be interesting as it would essentially entail a NATO air force securing the gains made by the opponents of a regime which is now allowing the basing allied Russian military forces on its territory nearby. If such a ceasefire does endure (which one really cannot take for granted in today's Syria) such a no-fly zone could also solidify a de-facto partition of the already fractured war-torn Syrian state.
Nobody can gauge for sure whether such a situation would unfold. Its possibility is definitely worth taking into serious consideration since the negotiating parties behind such a ceasefire are major players in the conflict. Additionally the very fact that Erdogan, one of the staunchest and resolute opponents of Assad and one of the strongest longstanding advocates of his ouster, is now open to negotiating a transition with the Syrian dictator is also reflective of a changing situation in an ever changing, and volatile, region.