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Idlib Truce a Possible Opportunity to Re-engage with Syria

Erdoğan says West’s failure to back Turkey risks more refugees in Europe and Iran’s regional entrenchment

[Ankara] President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan returned home early from Brussels on Tuesday, having forcefully told European Union and NATO members they were not honoring their security and economic obligations to Turkey.

If the new cease-fire that entered into effect in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province on Friday fails to hold, a new wave of refugees will swell the ranks of the 3.7 million Syrians in Turkey, already the world’s top refugee-hosting country according to the UN refugee agency.

“No European country has the luxury of being unconcerned about the conflicts and human drama in Syria,” said Erdoğan, one of the fiercest critics of the West’s response to the crisis that has engulfed the Levantine state since the civil war there began nine years ago.

At Monday’s closed-door session with European Council head Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu reminded the EU leaders of their unpaid debts to Turkey.

A 2016 deal required the European Union to provide $6.9 billion in aid to host fleeing Syrians In return, Ankara agreed to accept back asylum seekers who took clandestine routes to Greece from Turkey.

Ankara says Brussels has only forked over half the promised funds.

Erdoğan’s aides described the meeting with Michel and von der Leyen as “fruitful” in a briefing to the Turkish press.

Earlier in the day, Erdoğan met with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who said: “Allies are prepared to continue to support Turkey and explore what more to do.”

Who gains from the Idlib cease-fire?

The attacks by President Bashar Assad’s army on Turkish troops in Idlib − deployed to protect civilians in northwest Syria − and the subsequent cease-fire brokered by the Russians − have refocused Washington’s attention on regional security arrangements.

But they also gave Russia a chance to regroup and assert itself as a key to the solution of the Syria crisis.

“From my perspective, Russia is the big winner,” said Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a Turkey expert at Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. “Ankara could not achieve its most important objective of drawing Assad forces to the south of their [Turkey’s] observation posts.”

Since 2018, Turkey has maintained 61 observation posts in northern Syria, located between 2 and 100 km. south of the international border.

“This month’s battle proved that fighting the YPG [the People’s Protection Units, a predominantly ethnic Kurdish Syrian militia and the primary component of the Syrian Democratic Forces alliance] is not the same as fighting with an organized army. Turkey suffered a high number of casualties,” Yanarocak told The Media Line.

A February 27 Syrian government attack on a Turkish patrol near the Maar Hattat observation point killed more than 30 Turkish troops.

That pivotal incident − along with the assault on Idlib’s civilians − led to the escalation of the conflict as Ankara sent more troops into Syria and allowed several hundred refugees to cross from Turkey into the neighboring European Union nations of Greece and Bulgaria.

Still Yanarocak concedes that Turkey gained considerable respect from friends and foes alike for its successful deployment of drones in the Idlib battles.

“Turkey proved its significant progress in UAV technology, and it also challenged the Russian anti-air defense system,” said the analyst.

Drawing in NATO

Ammar Kahf, executive director of the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, a Syrian affairs research organization in Istanbul, said the marginalization of Iran in the Erdoğan-Putin cease-fire agreement is a strategic gain for both Ankara and the West.

“[The cease-fire] solidified the Turkish military’s heavy presence in Idlib and as a guarantor for the peace process,” Kahf told The Media Line.

“Iran is a loser in this deal, and furthering the Russia-Iran [political] gap allows Turkey to renegotiate matters with the US,” said Kahf.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham on Monday threw his support behind American efforts to assist Turkey to halt regime, Russian and Iranian gains in Idlib Province.

“I fully support the Trump administration’s efforts to get NATO more involved in Syria to help Turkey defend Idlib against Russian/Syrian aggression,” Graham wrote on Twitter.

“The fall of Idlib [to Assad’s forces] would be a humanitarian crisis for the world and would directly affect our European allies – for that reason, NATO should be more supportive of Turkey,” the senator wrote.

Fahad Almasri, the exiled leader of the National Salvation Front in Syria, also envisions an enhanced role for NATO in addressing the crisis.

“Obama’s administration made many catastrophic mistakes in Syria when it was reluctant to protect civilians and help in the transitional period through the implementation of UN [Security Council] Resolution 2254,” Almasri told the Media Line, referring to December 2015 call for a cease-fire and a political settlement.

“We demand a stronger and more influential role by the United States and look forward to having a strategic partnership with the United States and its [NATO] allies in Syria,” added Almasri, the former spokesman for the Free Syrian Army. “Intervention by NATO is the only guarantee to overcome doubts about the Turkish intentions, especially toward the Kurds and Alawites in Syria.

“I also think that establishing a regional NATO will help in expelling Iran from Syria,” he added.

View from the front

Commanders of the Syrian National Army (SNA) − a 7,000-troop force more directly under Ankara’s control than its nominal predecessor, the Free Syrian Army − are more skeptical about prospects for NATO engagement, and of the likelihood that the Idlib truce will hold.

“It’s obvious that Turkey needs stronger and serious support from NATO,” said SNA spokesman Yousef al-Hammoud. “But, it is still not clear what NATO will do next.”

More apparent is Turkey’s provision to the SNA of new weaponry, including crucial MANPADS, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles with a range of up to five kilometers.

The SNA has used these guided missiles to down Assad regime helicopters that were bombing the villages and towns of the Idlib countryside.

“We did lose some territory because of the cease-fire agreement,” Hammoud told The Media Line. “But Assad was the biggest loser in the last round of fighting because he lost a lot of equipment and soldiers.

“The SNA announced that we would resist the Russian and Iranian occupations, and we support a political solution allowing civilians to go back to their towns,” Hammoud said. “But honestly, we don’t yet feel that there’s a real international intention to push these goals forward.”