Erdogan’s Dilemma in Idlib

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has several reasons preventing him from retreating in the Syrian province of Idlib, as well as forcing him to sacrifice an alliance with Russia and involve the Turkish army in a bloody war.

First of all, it’s about the stubbornness and arrogance of the Turkish leader — Erdogan does not want to recognize himself defeated and compromise with opponents. Another reason for the reluctance to retreat is the change in the priorities of the Turkish president. If earlier he wanted to overthrow the regime in Syria, which turned out to be impossible, now the politician is trying to prevent the influx of refugees into Turkey by creating an “Islamic emirate” in Idlib, which accepts both radical groups and “moderate fractions”.

The third reason was the dilemma with radical Islamist organizations and movements that were created by militants of Turkish origin: the Sultan Murad, Sultan Mehmed Fatih, Samarkand brigades, and some of the groups merged with Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. On the one hand, Erdogan fears the appearance of lured militants in Turkey and their actions against him, since he refused Idlib and did not allow them to fight against the Syrian Government forces Bashar al-Assad. On the other hand, Erdogan cannot allow the Syrian army with the support of Russia to destroy these groups.

The fourth reason is the criticism of the policies of the Turkish authorities by the opposition and the public. According to journalists, they are against Erdogan’s decisions even in the Turkish army — for example, among army officers, calls are increasingly being made to recognize the Assad regime and restore relations with Syria.

As a result of the offensive, the Syrian army occupied almost half of the Idlib de-escalation zone and left behind Turkish observation posts. This outraged Ankara, and President Erdogan threatened to launch new Turkish attacks if the Syrian forces did not withdraw their positions beyond the line of posts.

Russia and Turkey, following the results of the talks held on March 5 in Moscow, agreed to establish a new ceasefire in the Idlib de-escalation zone. From March 15, it was agreed to begin joint patrolling of the Russian and Turkish military along a section of the indicated route from the settlement of Trumba (two kilometers west of the city of Sarakib) to the village of Ain al-Khabr. The relevant agreement is framed in the form of an additional protocol to the Sochi memorandum of defense ministers of Russia and Turkey of September 17, 2018.

Many HTS field commanders, who until recently received support from Ankara, were disappointed with the Russian-Turkish ceasefire agreement, considering it a “betrayal” by Turkey.

Meanwhile, amid complications in relations with the “irreconcilable” militants operating in the Idlib de-escalation zone, the Turkish army continues to deploy additional forces and equipment, as well as the creation of new “observation posts” in the north-west of the Arab Republic. So, the Turkish self-propelled howitzers T-155 Firtina are transferred to the city of Sarmin in the east of Idlib. The section of the Idlib front between Sarmin and Sarakib was one of the most active before the signing of the Russian-Turkish agreement earlier this month.

Will the Turkish President Erdogan strictly follow the agreements reached on March 5 in Moscow, or will he continue to strengthen his position in the Idlib de-escalation zone, as well as regain authority among terrorist groups? A difficult decision, which soon the head of Turkey will have to make one way or another.

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