The Turkish led “Battle for Idlib” continues to spiral out of control for reasons that are largely predictable. Idlib is unique among north-western Syrian Governorates, insofar as it still has a large al-Qaeda/al-Nusra presence as well as an ISIS presence. That being said the ISIS presence is often interchangeable with that al-Qaeda flag as the same Takfiri militants often fight under different flags on different occasions.
Even prior to Turkey’s most recent intervention in Idlib, al-Qaeda/al-Nusra factions have been fighting with FSA terrorists, Muslim Brotherhood terrorists, in addition to internal fighting within the ranks of each aforementioned organisation.
Now, FSA terrorists who are aligned with Turkey are reportedly fighting among one another. At this point it is important to clarify that of all the endlessly fluid names of terrorist groups in Syria, the most fluid is FSA. The name has become so confusing that at one point the US tried to remain their former ‘FSA’ styled proxies to ‘NSA’ (New Syrian Army), although the name has not stuck in any meaningful way.
The latest civil war in Idlib is between Turkish proxies/mercenaries who fly under the FSA flag. The fighting’s proximate cause is due to competition over Turkish injections of cash and favour, with an underlying tension wherein some Turkish proxies are happy to fight Kurdish forces on behalf of Ankara, where others would rather effectively pretend to fight al-Qaeda factions who essentially share their same Takrifi ideology. Turkish FSA mercenaries generally ‘fight’ al-Qaeda, by bribing them to vacate a certain parcel of territory. After doing so, the Turkish backed FSA factions will generally raise their flag after not a moment of fighting and claim a ‘victory’ over al-Qaeda. Sometimes this happens within hours of allowing al-Qaeda forces to safely vacate such places, after a bribe or other favourable agreement is reached.
Now however, that Turkey has plainly admitted that much of its new role in Idlib is largely to contain PKK aligned YGP Kurdish militias (who themselves are largely aligned with the United States as part of the so-called SDF), many Turkish FSA mercenaries/proxies, simply feel that the risk is not worth the money.
Whereas al-Qaeda/al-Nusra forces have run out of land and Gulfi money in Syria, Kurdish militants are fighting for territory and consequently, they have more fight left in them vis-a-vis the demoralised al-Qaeda forces.
This poses more of a problem for Turkey than for Syria. Syria responded to Erdgoan’s typically militant rhetoric about having his “own game-plan” in Idlib with a legally correct statement, saying that Turkey has no legal right to act unilaterally in Syria and must leave Syria at once, rather than execute such a unilateral plan. While the Syrian admonition of Turkey is legally in order, it crucially indicates that Syria believes Turkey is exceeding its mandate according to the Astana agreement wherein Turkey, Russia and Iran, with Syria’s approval, consented to the establishment and operational guidelines of a Turkish de-escalation zone in Idlib.
While Syria’s argument with Turkey is at this stage, an argument about whether Turkey is exceeding its Astana mandate, in reality, Turkey is facing far bigger existential problems in Idlib than Syria is facing.
Turkey is clearly gearing up for a containment operation against Kurdish militants and if the Kurds fight against this containment, Turkey is equally ready for a fight with Kurds on Syrian soil, something which the Turkish establishment sees as preferable to fighting the YPG allied PKK on Turkish soil. The problem for Turkey is that it is becoming increasingly apparent that its proxies in Syria may not be up to the task of fighting Kurdish militants. This would mean that the Turkish army would have to do much of the fighting of its own accord, something which remains controversial as the Turkish army is made up of many conscripted young men.
That being said, fighting Kurds remains more popular among all parties in Turkey, while fighting for Muslim Brotherhood style terrorists was only ever popular amongst Erdogan’s hardcore ideological base. The new reality however, is that the events in Idlib will force Turkey to take military matters fully into its own hands, seeing as a great number of Turkey’s proxies are increasingly not willing to abide by Erdogan’s new ‘game plan’. To accomplish this, Erdogan may need to rally popular support for sending more Turkish troops into Idlib to make up for the inadequacy of FSA proxy mercenaries. In order to achieve such popular support for sending Turkish conscript soldiers further into Syria, Erdogan will have to clarify that the operation is primarily against Kurdish militants who are near universally detested in Turkey, whereas beyond the AKP’s most ardent ideologues, a war involving a Muslim Brotherhood style ideology remains either unpopular or otherwise viewed as unnecessary for Turkey.
In this sense, unlike Turkey’s initial illegal incursion into Syria in the form of the pro-jihadist Operation Euphrates Shield, today’s operation is largely focused on Kurds, while talk of fighting al-Qaeda (according to Turkey) or fighting with al-Qaeda (according to Syria), is more or less a moot point in terms of the meaningful medium term developments in Syria where over 85% of all Syrian territory is now safely in the hands of the government.
Using the legal shield of the Astana agreement, Turkey will be able to conduct operations against Kurds with the tacit consent of Russia and Iran, something which will almost certainly help to reassure a Damascus government which remains highly sceptical of Erdogan’s designs on the region, based on his recent record of aggression against Syria. While Russia will aid Turkey in line with the Astana agreement, by clearing out parts of Idlib with Aerospace Forces, when it comes to the fight on the ground versus the US aligned Kurds, Turkey does not have any major power to rely on.
Thus, Erdogan may have his game plan, but he is increasingly alone in executing it. Erdogan has found out the hard way, that while mercenaries will help Turkey to fight for the Muslim Brotherhood, the jihadist proxies will not be so universally forthcoming in helping Turkey to fight a traditional Turkish enemy: the Kurdish YPG.