In the last month, Syrian government offensives against rebels in the south of the country succeeded more quickly than anticipated. With Damascus’ control now reasserted even in Deraa, the starting point of the civil war, the Assad regime’s attention must now turn northwards. That means Turkish-backed rebels in Idlib province, Turkish-occupied Afrin to the north of Idlib, and Kurdish-held Kobane and Jazira. These are the last significant pockets of territory outside the Syrian state’s control.
Damascus must make a choice about where to advance next. The Kurds of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and their allies are backed by the Americans but appear willing to negotiate with Assad. During the past two weeks, they sent representatives to hold talks with the regime. Since the beginning of the civil war, the PYD avoided fighting the regime whenever possible and never adopted the position that Assad must be removed from power in any peace deal.
If Assad can show a little flexibility by allowing some level of decentralization for the Kurdish-led cantons, it thus seems likely that he can reassert at least nominal control of these areas. Kurdish-led fighters have even accepted the possibility of being integrated within Syrian government armed forces, perhaps as a separate force still under the authority of Damascus. Forces under PYD command have indicated a willingness, with the right compromises from Damascus, to help Syrian government forces retake Idlib and Afrin in particular. Without any political commitments from the Americans for the future, this looks like the most prudent course of action for Kurds in Syria – although not without significant risks, given that an authoritarian regime in Damascus may soon backtrack on any promises of decentralization or recognition of minority rights it makes.
In contrast, the mostly Islamist rebels in Idlib, along with those occupying majority-Kurdish Afrin, display no such willingness to accommodate Assad. In Idlib in particular, rebel ranks also include thousands of seasoned fighters from the Caucasus – sworn enemies of Moscow. In both Idlib and Turkish-occupied Afrin, the rebel groups present fought Damascus at every turn in the civil war and long maintained their refusal to even countenance a peace arrangement that leaves Assad in power. Some kind of political entente between these groups and the Assad regime therefore seems next to impossible. Even now, reports indicate that Damascus is moving more troops into position in areas neighboring Idlib. Various rebel-held towns in Idlib are coming under increasing Syrian mortar fire.
Turkey’s backing of the approximately 100,000 rebels in Idlib, which includes the establishment of about a dozen Turkish military observation posts in Idlib, thus appears to be heading for a significant test. Syrian government media declared that “No matter what Russia has promised to Turkey, the Idlib operation will be carried out.” There are also some 2.5 million civilians in Idlib, of whom 1.2 million are internally displaced people who fled Syrian government advances in other parts of the country. These civilians would be very likely to flee towards Afrin and the Turkish border in the face of a Syrian offensive on Idlib.
In the event of a Syrian government offensive against Idlib and then Afrin, Moscow also seems highly unlikely to allow the Turkish air force to operate in these areas against its Syrian ally. Without air cover and facing the prospect of Syrian aircraft supporting the offensive against them, the limited Turkish forces present in Idlib and Afrin would be placed in a very difficult situation. They would likely be withdrawn despite earlier Turkish government promises to defend these areas. Ankara’s alternative of going “all in” and reinforcing its presence in Afrin and Idlib seems unimaginable in the face of Moscow’s opposition to such a prospect – especially given ever worsening Turkish relations with Washington, which might have otherwise counterbalanced Russia’s position.
Ankara’s alternative strategy would be to seek a political settlement in which it betrays its rebel Islamist allies in Idlib and Afrin and ends its presence in Syria in return for Assad’s agreement not to offer the Kurds in Kobane and Jazira anything. From the point of view of Damascus, however, such a deal may appear less attractive than moving on Idlib now. The Syrian Kurds still enjoy American backing and American troops remain in Kobane and Jazira, with the American air force controlling the skies over these areas. Forcefully regaining control of Kurdish-held areas while they still enjoy American backing thus seems impossible for Assad, as the slaughter of probing pro-regime forces by American aircraft around Deir-el-Zor last year demonstrated. With pockets of Islamic State Jihadis still in the area, Turkey also appears incapable of convincing Washington to end its support of the Syrian Kurds.
Turkey’s position in Syria risks quickly becoming untenable, with no good options for Ankara to extricate itself honorably from the Syrian morass.
David Romano has been a Rudaw columnist since 2010. He holds the Thomas G. Strong Professor of Middle East Politics at Missouri State University and is the author of numerous publications on the Kurds and the Middle East.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.