BY ZEYNEP GURCANLI
President Erdogan’s indication that “there could be a meeting with Assad if necessary” was a turning point for the AK Party government’s Syria policy.
This statement was a sign that the Damascus regime, which Turkey officially declared as “enemy” 11 years ago and which it opposed with both political and military support, could now become a negotiation partner – under certain conditions, of course.
After this statement, a mobilization in the northern part of the country, where Turkey and opposition armed forces are in control, makes one thing that something might be happening in Syria.
This has spread to Afrin – the Idlib region is now controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is on the UN’s list of terrorist organizations, as is Afrin. This development directly concerns Turkey, as Afrin is a region controlled by the Turkish armed forces together with the Syrian armed opposition groups following the the “Olive Branch” operation.
HTS militants advanced in Afrin, taking over some of the armed groups that Turkey has been unsuccessfully trying to gather under a single umbrella, the “Syrian National Army,” for years,. In some places, they even reached the Turkish border. It is noteworthy that Turkey’s reaction to this was inaction and that elements of the Turkish Armed Forces were not activated against HTS.
THE QUESTION IS: WHY?
It is possible to attribute this inactivity to many factors, including the latest developments in the international arena;
Will the Turkish soldiers withdraw quietly? The first thing to note is that HTS’s entry into Afrin coincided with Erdogan’s statements about “meeting with the Damascus regime.” The growing discontent towards Syrian refugees in Turkey before the 2023 elections seems to have forced the AK Party government to take action in Syria.
HTS, which has been controlling Idlib for years and is the heir of the terrorist organization, Al- Qaeda, has provided relative stability in this region. However, there is also the “multi-party structure” that the TAF are trying to establish together with the Syrian opposition groups west of the Euphrates. Although the armed groups in these regions seem to be gathered under the umbrella of the “Syrian National Army,” there is often disagreement, rivalry, and sometimes even conflict between them over the control of a village or neighborhood. This negatively affects stability in the region. The resulting complexity also affects the success of projects such as the “100 thousand briquette houses/1 million return” initiated by the AK Party government to send back the Syrian refugees in Turkey.
In addition, the huge cost to Turkey of the operation carried out by the TAF in Syria puts the AK Party, which is struggling with an economic crisis, in a tough spot.
After Idlib, Afrin’s transfer to HTS may pave the way for Turkish soldiers to withdraw from these regions. HTS could also be put directly on the “front line” against the Russian-backed Assad army.
Could it be a precaution against Iranian influence? What is happening in northern Syria is also directly related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Unable to find the sudden and decisive military victory it expected in Ukraine, Russia began to shift military equipment and troops from Syria to the war zone. The decrease in Russia’s military influence in the regions west of the Euphrates benefited Iran. As Russia withdrew, it began to be replaced by pro-Iranian forces fighting the Assad army. This situation caused surprise on the Western front, especially in Israel and the USA. It should also be noted that Ankara is not very pleased with Iran’s increasing influence in this region.
It’s also necessary to consider the leader of HTS, Colani, appearing in suits in photos rather than his usual garb. It seems he is trying to leave the “Islamist extremist” image behind. Obviously, HTS is trying to get off the UN’s “terrorist organization” list and play the role of a “moderate opposition group” that will fight against the Assad administration and Iran. Will it work?
Remember the West’s policy of fighting in Afghanistan first and then handing the country over to the Taliban when it doesn’t suit their interests. No one should be surprised when we wake up one morning and HTS is accepted as an “opposition group” and Colani as a “moderate Islamist.”
Will HTS fight the PYD-YPG? Another reason for Ankara’s inaction against HTS’s expansion of the area east of the Euphrates may be related to the “suddenly one night” operation, which Erdogan has been talking about since the spring, but which has never materialized.
Both the United States and Russia have made very clear and unambiguous statements that they are against the Turkish Armed Forces’ initiating a new operation in northern Syria.
However, within the scope of Ankara’s “cross-border corridor” plan for the fight against terrorism, there are two cities in the region that look like potential flash points and are controlled by the PYD-YPG, the Syrian extension of the PKK terrorist organization: Manbij and Tel Rifat.
Could it be that the AK Party government is paving the way for HTS to carry out the “suddenly one night” operation against these cities?
There are a lot of questions, but things have already shifted significantly. Let’s see where things go.