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Paul McLoughlin

Syria Weekly: 'Idlib will fall,' Assad regime tells Turkey

Idlib has been subject to horrendous Russian bombing [Getty]

Date of publication: 18 January, 2020

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The Assad regime is determined to capture the Idlib province, Ali Mamlouk told his Turkish counterpart, an event that will have huge consequences for Ankara and millions of Syrians.
Turkish and Syrian regime intelligence chiefs met this week for the first time in eight years, in a rare sign act of communication between the two sides, as a ceasefire in the Idlib province is declared "buried".

Ali Mamlouk, Bashar al-Assad's security adviser held brief talks with Hakan Fidan, the head of Turkey's National Intelligence Agency in Moscow on Monday, on the sidelines of a conference on Libya.

It follows apparent Russian attempts to encourage reconciliation between Ankara and Damascus, who have been on opposite sides of the Syria war over the past nine years.

Turkey was a firm opponent of the Assad regime's brutal crackdown on peaceful protests in 2011 and later an armed uprising in Syria, which was in part supported by Ankara.

Turkey is also home to more than three million Syrian refugees, most of them uprooted during the regime's brutal assaults on towns and cities in northern Syria, and hosts elements of the opposition government.

Relations were further complicated by Turkey's own intervention in Syria with three major offensives backed by Syrian rebel fighters – Euphrates Shield against the Islamic State group [IS] and the Olive Branch and Peace Spring operations against the Kurdish People's Protection Units [YPG] militias later.

Syrian intelligence, itself, has been accused of masterminding attacks in Turkey, including the 2013 twin bombings at the border town of Reyhanli, which killed 53 people.

In 2018, Turkey's intelligence launched a daring operation inside Syria to chase down the chief suspect in the case, with Yusuf Nazik, a Turkish citizen, captured by agents in Latakia and brought back over the border to face justice.




With this atmosphere of mutual suspicion, few expect political normalisation between Ankara and Damascus any time soon.

However, both sides are close friends with Russia – which is eager to bring the Assad regime out of the political wilderness – and share a common enmity for Kurdish militancy.

Talks

During Monday's meeting, Mamlouk and Fidan discussed "the possibility of cooperating against the [Kurdistan Workers' Party] PKK's Syrian offshoot, the YPG terrorist group in north-eastern Syria", Turkey's Daily Sabah reported.

Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based political analyst and researcher, said that the meeting between Syrian and Turkish intelligence was likely orchestrated by Russia, but does not mark a change in relations between the two countries.

"It does not indicate a change in Turkey's stance towards the Syrian regime. Ankara still refuses to grant the Syrian regime political legitimacy through official meetings or contacts," he said.

"Probably Turkey had to please Moscow due to Russia insisting, over the past two or three years, that Turkish officials meet with their Syrian counterparts."

After Turkey launched its second major offensive in Syria with the Olive Branch operation in Afrin, Ankara agreed to deal with Damascus but only through the intelligence apparatus and relating to events on the ground.

"This way, Turkey is not granting the Syrian regime the political legitimacy it is seeking," said Bakeer.
It does not indicate a change in Turkey's stance towards the Syrian regime. Ankara still refuses to grant the Syrian regime political legitimacy
- Ali Bakeer, political analyst
The meeting between Syrian intelligence chief Ali Mamlouk and his Turkish counterpart Hakan Fidan took place on the sidelines of this week's Russian-sponsored conference in Moscow on the Libya war.

Ankara has admitted to sending advisers to work with the Government of National Accord [GNA] but has also been accused of sending 2,000 Syrian fighters to bolster the Tripoli government.

Durin the Moscow meeting, Mamlouk requested that Turkey respect Syrian sovereignty and in return pledged to deal with hostile Kurdish militants in the People's Protection Units [YPG], who are active in northern Syria and the main reason for Ankara's cross-border intervention.

"Mamlouk asked Turkey to pull its troops out of Syria, but in my opinion Ankara will not do this until there are legitimate and fair elections in Syria, after the regime completes a political framework for peace," Bakeer added.

"One thing that came out of the Moscow meeting is that Turkey still does not trust the Syrian regime."

Idlib

Ömer Özkizilcik, an analyst at the Security Studies of the SETA Foundation, a think-tank in Ankara, agrees that the meeting should not be interpreted as a sign of normalisation between Turkey and the Assad regime.

"The meeting was not the first of its kind and such meetings may happen in the future. The meeting of two intelligence chiefs doesn't mean that Turkey and the Syrian regime are getting closer. In fact, what came out of this meeting could end up being a further strain in relations as well," Özkizilcik said.

The talks coincided with renewed Russian bombing of the opposition Idlib province, despite Moscow's pledge to Ankara that it would enact a ceasefire beginning last weekend.

Russia's strikes in Idlib and a Syrian regime ground offensive has killed hundreds of civilians over the past six months and forced hundreds of thousands to flee their homes towards the closed Turkey border.

Read also: Syrians feel abandoned by the world

Despite Turkish efforts to end the humanitarian crisis unfolding on its border, by pressing Moscow to respect the 2019 Sochi ceasefire agreement, the assault on Idlib has continued.

"The realities are quite obvious – despite all the agreements and ceasefire declarations, the Russian side continues its bombardment over Idlib with little differentiation between military and civilian targets," Özkizilcik added.

"Turkey can't stop Russia from doing so. The only way to secure civilians from Russian airstrikes is a no-fly zone, but this hasn't happened [in the past] nine years and nothing indicates it will happen anytime soon."

Turkey has reportedly increased the supply of weapons to Syrian rebels defending the Idlib province from the offensive, but it appears the Russian and Syrian regime will push on with the assault despite Ankara's protests.

During the Moscow meeting, the Syrian intelligence chief reportedly told Fidan that its aim was still to capture Idlib province from the rebels, despite Ankara's calls for a ceasefire.

"The Syrian state is determined to go ahead in its war against terrorism to liberate the whole region of Idlib and the return of the state's authority," Syrian state media reported.

Sources say that Turkey has informed rebels that they are unable to do more in the defence of Idlib from the regime and Russian attacks, but the fall of the province will have catastrophic consequences for millions of Syrians and put pressure on Ankara to open its borders to more refugees.
If two million more refugees arrive in Turkey, as the UN suggests, that would be something that Turkey can't handle
- Ömer Özkizilcik, analyst
"If two million more refugees arrive in Turkey, as the UN suggests, that would be something that Turkey can't handle… Turkey has tried diplomatic ways to prevent it, but it says it could also use military force, if necessary," Özkizilcik said.

"At the moment, Turkey has allegedly propped up weapon supplies to armed rebels in Idlib but these supplies won't change much, except for increasing the cost for the regime and slowing down the assault. Therefore, I have argued for over a year that a new approach for Idlib is needed."

Such conditions mean that Idlib is increasingly a national security issue for Turkey, which Özkizilcik said could have dire consequences for relations between Ankara and Moscow if Russia fails to respect its ally's concerns.

"Turkey and Russia have learned to continue their relationship despite disagreements, but at a certain point when the refugee flow towards Turkey might look imminent, Turkish-Russian relations might reach a point similar to the downing of the Russian jet by Turkey in 2015," he said.


Syria Weekly is a regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here.

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin

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