Spotlight: Turkey may take risks while monitoring truce in Syria's Idlib: expert

Source: Xinhua| 2017-09-22 22:38:47|Editor: Mu Xuequan
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ISTANBUL, Sept. 22 (Xinhua) -- As Turkey prepares to get militarily involved in Syria's Idlib to monitor truce, it risks confrontation with radical groups, terrorist attacks on its soil as well as fleeing Islamists flooding toward its border if clashes break out, according to local experts.

Some radical Islamist groups, dominated by al-Nusra Front, control much of Idlib province and they have not been part of the Astana peace process.

If these groups come under a heavy attack, their militants may attempt to flee by crossing the Turkish border, Cahit Armagan Dilek, director of the Ankara-based 21st Century Turkey Institute, told Xinhua.

Russia, a staunch supporter of the Syrian government against rebels, do not wish to see the militants back as potential terrorists.

It is estimated that at least half of the radical Islamists in Idlib are foreigners, most of whom come from Russia's Caucasus and Central Asia.

"Russia is known to seek to stop al-Nusra terrorists from returning home," said Dilek, a former staff officer in the Turkish military.

Al-Nusra Front, together with the Islamic State, was excluded from the Astana peace talks as they are recognized as terrorist organizations.

In a bid to end the Syrian clashes that have lasted six years, Russia, Turkey and Iran finalized in Astana last Friday a deal to set up de-escalation zones in four different regions in Syria, including Idlib that borders Turkey's southernmost Hatay province.

Following the deal, Ankara sent more armored vehicles and troops near the border with Idlib.

On Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at the UN General Assembly in New York that Ankara was preparing to put a new plan into action to make Idlib a secure place and that his country will support any step aimed at rebuilding Syria along democratic lines based on its territorial integrity.

Turkey's Yeni Safak daily, which is close to the ruling Justice and Development Party, claimed last Friday that Turkey would send to Idlib as many as 25,000 troops and control an area with a depth of at least 35 kilometers from the Turkish border.

Analysts speaking to Xinhua, however, expect Ankara's military involvement to remain within the confines of the Astana deal, which does not call for a major military engagement.

"I do not think that either Damascus nor Tehran, and above all Moscow, would agree to a Turkish cross-border operation in Idlib," Dilek said, noting the reinforcements sent to the border area should have more to do with border security and possible contingencies.

Under the Astana deal, Russia, Turkey and Iran will each deploy 500 observers across the four de-escalation zones in war-torn Syria. Turkish media reports said last week that Turkish troops would be stationed in the northern parts of Idlib province.

"Turkey must shun any further military involvement in Syria," Faruk Logoglu, a former senior diplomat of Turkey, told Xinhua, "given the situation on the ground, a Turkish incursion might be too costly in comparison to its previous operations."

Around one third of Idlib is estimated to be controlled by the rebel Free Syrian Army backed by Turkey.

It is argued that if Turkey gets directly involved in a fight against the extremist groups in the area, it may well face increasing terrorist threat at home from the Turkish cells of those radical groups.

"There are reports that say at least 2 million of these more than 3 million Syrian refugees in Turkey is ideologically close to extremist groups," noted Dilek.

Turkish media, citing a police report unveiled last year, said the Islamic State had cells in 70 provinces across Turkey, while polls in recent years indicated that between five and eight percent of the Turkish population are ideologically aligned with the Islamic State.

The Islamic State has launched several deadly attacks in Turkey in recent years, but al-Nusra is not known to have been involved in any major lethal attack in the country since the Syrian civil war began.

Some hope many of the radical groups led by al-Nusra would break with the group if confronted with heavy attacks and join the ranks of the Free Syrian Army or the Syrian Democratic Forces.

This would, it is argued, cripple al-Nusra's capacity to fight and lead to its gradual dissolution in the medium term as the group's supply lines would be cut off as well by joint actions of Turkish, Russian, Iranian and Syrian forces.

If countries like Russia, Syria and even the United States should attack the extremists, it is quite likely that the terrorists would try to flee to Turkey, said Dilek.

"That would mean a major security threat for Turkey," he warned.

According to a recent report by the British Guardian daily, dozens of Islamic State defectors have crossed into Turkey from Syria as the militant group has been losing ground.

Some of the militants' possible participation in the ranks of the Free Syrian Army could lead to trouble in the future, as it may rekindle differences among groups making up the rebel fighters.

If the battle breaks out in Idlib, Turkey may find itself in the middle of a mass migration of civilians toward its borders, as an estimated population of 1.5 million live in the province.

Other than Islamic State fighters, all rebels fighting in various parts of Syria were allowed into Idlib in December last year following a deal brokered by Russia, Turkey and Iran.

Turkish forces, backed by Free Syrian Army rebels, launched an operation known as Euphrates Shield in northern Syria in August last year to push the Islamic State away from the Turkish border and prevent Kurdish militia forces to unite the cantons under their control.

"Turkey should wait and see how the Astana agreement works out, keep its options open and in the meantime leave the fighting to others," suggested Logoglu.

A big operation against the extremists may well prove more costly than the Operation Euphrates Shield, warned Dilek.

"Not only is the terrain around Idlib comparatively tougher for the attacking side, but al-Nusra militants are better fighters than Islamic States ones," said Dilekd.

Russia's Sputnik reported on Wednesday that around 850 terrorists were killed by Russian and Syrian forces in Idlib in fighting against a surprise attack by al-Nusra.

According to the report based on a statement by the Russian General Staff, 11 tanks, four infantry fighting vehicles, 46 pick-up trucks, five mortars and 38 weapon depots used by the terrorists were destroyed as well.

For some, Turkey's military buildup near the border with Idlib may have to do with a potential operation against the Afrin canton.

Some of the recent military reinforcements are deployed near the border with Afrin, which is now surrounded from three sides by the Turkish military and the Free Syrian Army elements.

Preparations for a military operation against Afrin have been in full swing, the Hurriyet daily news portal said on Wednesday.

Ankara has been said to be bargaining with Moscow about a Turkish military intervention in Afrin in return for its support to the Syrian government in seizing control of the Idlib area.

Turkey has repeatedly vowed not to allow a Kurdish state to emerge along its border, fearful that such an eventuality may fuel separatism at home by its own large Kurdish population.

Logoglu also advised against a direct military intervention into Afrin.

"A confrontation with YPG would only exacerbate Turkey's own terrorism problem at home and might push the United States to provide even greater support to the YPG," Logoglu explained, referring to the Kurdish militia forces known as People's Protection Units but seen by Ankara as terrorists.