Idlib Offensive Hangs Fire as Erdogan Juggles Balls between Russia, Iran and the US

Saying different things in different places to different people has become a hallmark of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s special style of leadership and diplomacy. On Tuesday, Sept. 11, he wrote in an article titled “The World Must Stop Assad” that the Syrian people must not be left to the mercy of the Bashar al-Assad regime. “All members of the international community must understand their responsibilities as the assault on Idlib looms.” He warned: “A regime assault [in Idlib] would also create serious humanitarian and security risks for Turkey, the rest of Europe and beyond.’

The Turkish leader sang a different tune when he sat down with his Russian and Iranian colleagues, Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani, in Tehran last Friday, Sept. 7. DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources reveal that he asked Putin and Rouhani to delay the start of their joint Idlib offensive to give him space for negotiating an agreement with the Hait Tahrir ash-Sham (HTS) rebel group, which controls large swathes of the province, including Idlib the town, and commands 70 percent of the 60,000 arms-bearing rebel fighters holed up there.

But only last week, Erdogan branded the Hait Tahrir ash-Sham a “terrorist organization!” That pleased Putin, because this group is responsible for a rash of attacks every few days on the Russian Khmeimim Air Base in Latakia, using drones for which Turkey’s MIT intelligence agency supplied the technology.

Now, Erdogan explained to Putin, that he is trying to persuade the HTS to order its forces to let Russian-Iranian-Syrian forces enter Idlib city with no more than token resistance, after which they would withdraw under the protection of Turkish army units posted in northern Idlib. The rebel group would then hand its heavy weapons over to the Turkish army and be given a Russian guarantee for their return to Idlib to join the Syrian government security organs taking charge of the town.

But HTS leaders are not buying the Turkish deal. This week, in fact, the HTS warned Turkey against a sellout. Our sources note that Erdogan’s maneuvers have left Moscow, Tehran and Damascus up in the air with no knowing how they will pan out,

His posture towards Russia and Iran is also seriously wide of the commitment he gave only last week to James Jeffrey, the new US special representative for Syria, when they met in Ankara. On that occasion, the Turkish president and the US envoy clinched a deal for the Trump administration to allow Erdogan to offer the following proposition to Putin and Rouhani: The trilateral Idlib offensive could go forward, provided the armed rebel militias supported by the US in the North Syrian districts adjoining the embattled province were given immunity from attack. Among them were the Syrian Democratic Army. This would have amounted to an American-Turkish green light for Russia, Iran and Syria to go through with their Idlib assault, so long as it was limited in scale and did not entail chemical warfare.

But then another difficulty presented itself. It was perceived that the Russian-Iranian commitment to avoid clashes with the pro-Turkish rebel group was almost impossible to honor since the HTS commands much of the territory through which the attackers would need to pass on their way to Idlib.

The formula put forward by Jeffrey, a long-serving US ambassador to Ankara and friend of Erdogan, in a nutshell, was to defer both the trilateral Idlib operation and the Turkish assault on America’s Kurdish allies, the YPG, in northern Syria.

But what happened next was that the Kurdish YPG took matters in their own hands. In the past fortnight, this militia has concentrated a large force outside the Afrin enclave which the Turkish army has occupied since January. The Kurdish fighters are poised ready to drive the Turkish invaders out as soon as the Russian-Iranian-Syrian ground assault takes off in Idlib. The Kurdish commanders calculated that the Turkish army would have its hands full in Idlib, and Afrin’s recovery would be a cake walk. Its fall would bring the entire Turkish military edifice in northern Syria tumbling down.

The date for the Idlib offensive to go forward on the ground has clearly become snarled up in the web of Erdogan’s double-dealing, inconsistencies and procrastination. And he was not finished. The Turkish leader has kept on pouring troops into Idlib. By Thursday, Sept. 13, their number had spiraled to 23,000, while he also pumped large quantities of heavy weapons to pro-Turkish militias in the province.

It was therefore not surprising to hear Russian and Iranian officials suggesting this week that the Idlib question may after all be susceptible to a peaceable deal through negotiations with the rebel forces holding the province.

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