Idlib Operation Stuck Before It Starts: No Ground Troops from Russia, Turkey or Iran

Not a single Turkish soldier or tank crossed into Syria during the week after President Tayyip Erdogan’s bombastic announcement on Oct. 7 that his army had launched a major operation to liberate next-door Syrian Idlib from the Al-Qaeda-affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (former Nusra Front).

It turns out that the Turkish army was told to confine itself to cross-border artillery fire at the enemy. Not a single Turkish Air Force jet took to the air. And even the SFA Syrian rebel group trained and backed by Turkey sent nothing more than an advance scouting mission into Syria.

The entire operation is stuck in the mud over the deep mistrust dividing the military chiefs of the three allies, Russia, Turkey and Iran, after their principals committed to their first trilateral military operation in Syria. DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that none of the threesome is willing to put up the ground troops needed for the joint offensive, while each passes the buck to the other two.

Tehran argues that Turkey shares a border with Idlib and is therefore closest to the targeted arena. However, while Erdogan favors a Turkish role in the Idlib operation and likes the idea of an alliance with Russia and Iran, he is deeply reluctant to put large-scale Turkish boots on the ground to lead an offensive against radical Sunni groups. His government has long maintained clandestine ties with Islamist organizations and for years allowed their fighters going to and from Syria to pass through his territory.

Neither does the Turkish president want to appear in the eyes of Syrian Sunnis as a collaborator with Syrian Alawites and the Shiite Hizballah.

For all these reasons, Erdogan is urging Iran, which has already established a military presence in Syria, to contribute the main ground force to the Idlib operation. This would leave him free to act as mediator between the pro-Iranian and other Hizballah forces and the Islamist extremists.

Tehran is not buying this proposition.

The Russians, for their part, decline to step out of the role they have performed for the past two years, providing air support for allied ground forces.

Our military sources report that Moscow is pushing hard for its first collaborative operation with Iran and Turkey to take off, offering assurances that Russian air bombardments will tip the scales and trounce the Islamists as they did in Aleppo.

Idlib’s geography is however different from that of urbanized Aleppo, which was once Syria’s largest city. Idlib’s broad spaces cover some 7,000 square kilometers and its two million inhabitants are widely dispersed in small locations. There is no way for the Idlib province to be brought under control purely by air strikes.

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