As part of a deal finalized by Turkey, Russia and Iran in Kazakhstan's Astana last month, Turkish troops have entered Idlib province to monitor truce between the Syrian government and rebel groups. (Xinhua photo)
ISTANBUL, Oct. 18 (Xinhua) -- The Turkish military intervention into the Syrian province of Idlib, widely deemed necessary for Turkey's security, is full of risks and could weaken Ankara's hand in dealing with other threats in the region, analysts cautioned.
"Turkey stepped into a trap in Idlib and the risk is big," Haldun Solmazturk, a retired general with the Turkish military, told Xinhua.
Like many others, he felt that Ankara had to intervene as Idlib represents the most immediate and biggest threat to Turkey's security.
As part of a deal finalized by Turkey, Russia and Iran in Kazakhstan's Astana last month, Turkish troops entered Idlib province last week to monitor truce between the Syrian government and rebel groups.
The province, one of the four de-escalation zones in war-torn Syria, stretches over a large area in northern Syria and is mainly controlled by the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front.
Around 15,000 armed rebels are estimated to be in the province on the Turkish border, while a major portion of them are from the ranks of Nusra Front, which did not join the Astana peace process and is recognized as a terrorist group.
"At least three brigades of troops and a police force of that size are needed to maintain security in Idlib," stated Solmazturk, who currently chairs the Incek debates at the Ankara-based 21st Century Turkey Institute.
Turkey felt the need to militarily intervene as it feared it might face a huge wave of migrants from Idlib in case the Syrian army moves to eliminate the jihadists.
It is quite likely that the terrorists in the area would try to flee to Turkey in such a case, posing a serious security threat to Ankara.
Around 1.5 million civilians currently live in Idlib province, while Turkey has already hosted some 3 million Syrians who fled the war.
Turkey's main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), which supports the military operation, warned last week that the country may find itself in a trap in Idlib.
The party's leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu maintained that Turkey was given the dangerous task of eliminating the jihadists in Idlib.
Noting the Turkish military will have to fight the jihadist groups Ankara had previously supported, he said "this elimination will come at a very heavy cost."
Turkey fears that the Kurdish militia in Afrin canton neighboring Idlib may have moved, backed by the U.S., to drive the jihadists from the area if Ankara did not intervene.
Such an eventuality would mean an expansion of the Kurdish-controlled area toward the Mediterranean Sea along the Turkish border, a development feared by Ankara as it would greatly raise chances for the emergence of a U.S.-backed Kurdish state.
Together with the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish region along the Turkish border, a Kurdish belt in Syria would risk physically cutting off Turkey from the Arab world.
Unless the jihadists lay down arms or choose to join Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA), a clash seems most probable.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be responsible for any casualties in Idlib, the CHP leader said, arguing the threats facing Turkey now are a result of the government's wrong policy of trying to overthrow the Syrian government.
The government's earlier wrong policy led Ankara to step into this trap, echoed Solmazturk.
Although working together with Russia and Iran, Damascus's allies in the civil war, Turkey still refuses to see the Syrian government as legitimate.
Until mending ties with Russia last year after shooting down a Russian jet, Turkey's ruling Islamist party supported some rebel groups fighting to topple the Syrian government headed by President Bashar Al-Assad.
Top Turkish officials said their troops entered Idlib as part of the Astana deal, but Damascus condemned the intervention as occupation and demanded an immediate withdrawal.
According to a report by Russia's Sputnik news portal on Sunday, the speaker of the Syrian parliament, Hammoudeh Sabbagh, said in a speech in St. Petersburg that the Turkish operation was not discussed in Astana talks.
In the view of Solmazturk, the speaker's remarks were mainly aimed at putting Damascus in the right place in terms of international law.
Syria may be concerned that Turkey could set up a lasting state-like structure following an extended stay in the area, Hasan Koni, a professor of public international law at Istanbul Kultur University, told Xinhua.
"Damascus does not trust Ankara," he said.
Turkish troops must stay in Idlib until threats from Syria are gone, Turkish Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli said last week.
According to most estimates, there are around 15 different Sunni rebel groups in the area and Ankara has sway over some of them.
Turkey played a significant role when many of the rebels now in Idlib were allowed in December last year to travel to the province from other places based on a deal with Russia, Iran and the Syrian government.
There have reportedly been no clashes with the jihadists since the Turkish intervention began around a week ago.
"The risk of a clash may increase" as Turkish troops approach the city of Idlib under the control of Nusra Front, Koni said.
Under the Astana deal, the Turkish military will be responsible for the inner parts of the province including the city of Idlib, while Russia will be monitoring truce in the outer sections.
The Turkish troops, accompanied by FSA militants, have so far moved ahead through negotiations with rebels in the area, according to press reports.
In case of a slight escalation of tension in Idlib, Turkey would need to direct all its attention and much of its resources there, said Solmazturk.
The analysts thought that the Idlib operation could, in case of an outbreak of clashes, significantly weaken the Turkish military's capacity to simultaneously deal with other threats, as the armed forces are still smarting from a hard crackdown launched in the aftermath of a failed military coup last year.
Noting Idlib is not only quite a large area to take control of, it is also difficult to identify who is there, Solmazturk said "Turkey does not have sufficient resources for such an operation."
"Due to troops to be transferred to Idlib, the military may have difficulty in its fight against the PKK, in focusing on the threat by Kurdish cantons in northern Syria," he added.
Turkey has been fighting against the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) for over 30 years, which is trying to establish an autonomous region if not an independent Kurdistan in Turkey's predominantly Kurdish southeast.
By taking advantage of the war in Syria, the PKK-linked Kurdish militia, known as People's Protection Units (YPG), has carved out three autonomous cantons along the Turkish border, which Ankara sees as an existential threat.
Following the failed coup, it is difficult for the Turkish military to simultaneously fight the PKK, the rebels in Idlib and deal with the Kurdish cantons effectively, said Koni.
The Turkish military has around 7,500 of its members dismissed in the ongoing purge, with about 300 of them jet pilots. Many others are facing judicial investigations over suspected links to a network blamed for orchestrating the putsch.
Turkey also has troops in northern Syria in an area stretching from Afrin canton, which lies to the north of Idlib, to the Euphrates River in the east.
The area was captured from the Islamic State in a military operation launched from August last year till March this year that was aimed mainly at stopping the three Kurdish cantons from uniting along the Turkish border.
"If the rebels (in Idlib) feel they are threatened by the Turkish military, then an armed clash would break out," remarked Koni, who also thinks the Idlib operation is a necessary move.
Yeni Safak, a pro-government daily, claimed on Monday that the Turkish military would act to drive the YPG from Afrin after establishing security in Idlib.
The analysts believe it is a "story" aimed for domestic consumption only.
"Turkey can't take such a step," Koni argued. "It wouldn't dare to damage its relations with Moscow at a time when the Turkish-U.S. ties are already quite strained."
"Afrin is a problem for Turkey, but circumstances are not suitable for it to be tackled militarily. Neither Russia nor the U.S. would allow an intervention against Afrin," added Solmazturk.