Turkey’s “Olive Branch” operation against Afrin is facilitating the Syrian regime and Moscow’s campaign against opposition forces in Idlib.
We have a replay of the situation in Aleppo in 2016, when Turkey had to look the other way as regime forces, with help from Russia and Iran, took that city after a brutal military campaign.
The bombing of the Sunni opposition in Aleppo angered President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Islamist support base, but there was not much Ankara could do because of its dependence on Moscow. That was also the time when Russia gave the green light to Turkey’s “Euphrates Shield” operation, launched in northern Syria in August 2016.
Angered by scenes in Idlib similar to what we saw in Aleppo, Ankara recently called in the Russian and Iranian ambassadors to lodge a formal protest. It said the groups being bombed and killed in Idlib were moderate opposition forces and not Islamic terrorists, as was being claimed.
Nevertheless, Ankara now finds itself having to remain quiet over what is happening in Idlib also because it can’t afford to overshadow the green light it got from Moscow for its Olive Branch operation.
One can safely assume, therefore, that even if Turkey and Russia did not come to an arrangement involving a trade-off between Afrin and Idlib, a point Ankara is underlining, that is still what the end result will be.
Complicating the situation further for Ankara is the fact that the groups being attacked in Idlib are related to elements within the Free Syrian Army (FSA), which are supporting Turkey’s campaign against Afrin.
It is not clear what problems this will cause in the future between Ankara and Russia, seeing as Moscow and Damascus see these groups as terrorists that have to be destroyed. If Turkey succeeds in expelling the YPG from Afrin it is very likely that the fighters dislodged from Idlib will move to Turkish held areas.
Afrin could easily come to be seen by Russia as a haven for Islamic terrorists. The main opposition Republican Peoples Party (CHP) in Turkey is also claiming that the FSA contains Al Qaida linked fighters.
Even these few points show that Ankara may face new problems that could stall its plans to clear all the territory in Northern Syria along its borders from the YPG.
Meanwhile, Russian effort aimed at bringing all the groups in Syria together in Sochi this week for peace talks had an inauspicious start. The group backed by Turkey refused to participate despite the pressure Moscow wanted Ankara put on them to go to Sochi.
This group asked Turkey to represent it instead, which is an anomaly in itself. It’s not hard to imagine, that there will be mutterings on the Russian side as to who Turkey will be representing; itself or the Syrians. It is also not clear how other Syrian opposition groups will react to this.
These are just some of the pitfalls awaiting Ankara in Syria as it tries to forge on with its Olive Branch operation. Turkey may have decided to throw in its lot with Russia in Syria, but it has to think more broadly before burning its bridges with its traditional allies. It has to realize that putting all its eggs in one basket in always risky in international relations.