Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Saturday the launch of a new military operation in Idlib province, Syria, with air support from Russia. It is a continuation of the “Euphrates Shield” campaign, the Turkish military campaign that went from August 2016 to last March.
Speaking at a meeting of his party, the AKP, the Turkish President explained that the operation aims to “assure the safety of Idlib” and that “other actions could follow.” For now, Turkish soldiers have not set foot yet on Syrian territory. “ELS is currently carrying out the operation and our troops are not there,” Erdogan said, referring to the men of the so-called Syrian Free Army trained and equipped by Ankara for years against Damascus.
Some Turkish military units, “special forces” according to the Anadolu agency, are still deployed along the border, particularly at Reyhanli, in the Hatay province. Turkish soldiers will install observation towers and will monitor the truce between Syria’s ruling forces and those of Hay’at Tahrir at Sham — the front led by a Nusra (al Qaeda) that controls most Idlib province — under the agreement reached at the last round of inter-Syrian talks on de-escalation areas held in Astana between Turkey, Russia and Iran.
This time, Erdogan, who for years has sponsored the jihadi forces in Syria, argues that the operation’s objective is to fight terrorism. On Aug. 24, 2016, he spoke of ISIS; now he talks about “terrorists,” in a vague reference to his former Nusra protegees.
The goals of the Turkish leader in Syria, however, despite the understanding he now maintains with Russia allied of Damascus, have never changed. Support the ELS, the militia linked to the High Council for Negotiations (anti-Damascus opposition), and to extinguish the hopes of the Syrian Kurdish allies of Turkey’s PKK.
A year ago, Ankara blocked the advance of the Syrian Democratic Forces created by the United States and composed mainly of YPG Kurdish militias (People’s Protection Unit), which are labeled by the Turks as “terrorists.” Euphrates Shield recaptured Kurdish fighters east of the Euphrates River to divide the territory of Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan) into two parts. The operation ultimately aimed to create a buffer area — Jarabulus, Manbij and Bab — to better position the allied militias of Ahrar with respect to the Sham (Salafites) and ELS. Erdogan warned: If the borderline was crossed, then the bulk of the Turkish armed forces would actively take action.
Then last March, the government announced the end of the Euphrates Shield campaign. This was followed by a focus on Iraq, again with anti-Kurdish objectives, in which Turkey demanded to be involved in any policy solution for Syria and Iraq. “Turkey supports the territorial integrity of Syria and Iraq,” Erdogan would say. The truth is that even this operation in the Idlib province, albeit officially incorporated in Astana’s agreement, is consistent with the Turkish leader’s plan to fragment Syria (in fact, if not officially) and weaken it.
In the meantime, the Syrian army continues its slow recapture of the territories occupied by ISIS in the eastern part of the country, especially around Mayadin, partly retaken this weekend. Both the government and allied forces are advancing toward the Shibl Factories in the direction of Abu Khabar, the last Syrian town on the Euphrates river before the Iraqi border, Panaraba TV reported in Mayadeen on Saturday.
ISIS lost most of the city of Deir ez-Zur last month, leaving Mayadin as the group’s last remaining stronghold in east Syria. Russian bombers pounded that area over the weekend, killing 120 ISIS fighters and 60 foreign jihadis in one day.