Two days before last week’s Tehran Summit, which did not go as well for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as he no doubt hoped it would, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu uttered remarks on Idlib that stated the obvious.
Talking at a joint press conference in Ankara with his German counterpart Heiko Maas, Cavusoglu said that of the four “de-escalation zones,” agreed on with Russia and Iran in Astana last year, three had fallen to the regime, with only one remaining, namely Idlib.
“None should kid themselves. We are all agreed that radical groups have to get out of here or be separated. But the aim of this attack is to take control of Idlib” Cavusoglu said in response to a question.
He was referring, of course, to the military operation started by the Syrian regime, which is bombing targets in the south of Idlib province, with air support from the Russian air force stationed in the nearby Hmeimim Airbase.
Moscow has been insisting that the whole province has become a hotbed of Jihadist terrorists, starting with what it calls the Al Nusra group, but which currently uses the name of Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS).
Ankara’s fear is that these operations will spread to the rest of the province where 3.5 million people, including many who have fled from other parts of the country, live in fear.
Turkey has set up 12 military outposts in Idlib, under the Astana accords, which are supposed to monitor a ceasefire between the government and the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The Astana accords do not cover Jihadist that have flooded into Idlib, after being defeated in other parts of Syria. This stipulation is providing the pretext for the military strikes by Russian and Syrian forces there.
“The plan was apparent from the start” Cavusoglu continued. “These groups would go there and after that [the regime] would use their presence to attack [Idlib] in order to capture it” he added.
It is not clear who was “kidding themselves,” to use the minister’s term, about this, but it looks like it might have been himself, because this “plan” of Moscow and Damascus’ was hardly a secret.
Bashar al Assad, the Syrian leader, has point out on numerous occasions in the recent past – especially after his military victories in the south of the country – that his intention is to regain control over the whole of the country, including Idlib.
Russia, for its part, has given notice through its Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, that Turkey should return territories the Turkish military captured from the Kurdish YPG group in northern Syria, most notably the formerly YPG held city of Afrin, to the Assad regime.
If three of the de-escalation zones Cavusoglu was referring to have fallen to the regime, this happened while the Astana process that Turkey is part of was active.
Even some supporters of the government are coming around to admitting now that this process has been used as a cover as Assad, with help from Turkey’s “Astana partners” Russia and Iran, consolidates his hold over the country.
Everything is clear, highly apparent, and has been there for all to see all along. It is, therefore strange that Turkey’s foreign minister should have uttered his remarks on Idlib thinking he was saying something new.
More intriguing is that fact that he should have said what he did on the eve of a critical summit on Idlib between the principal players, who claim to be working closely together in Syria.
Turkey’s problem in Syria from the start has been its failure to take a hard and realistic look at the facts on the ground; until, that is, things have moved on, leaving Ankara in the difficult situation of trying to catch up from behind.
The results of the Tehran summit, and President Vladimir Putin’s public rebuffing of Erdogan’s call for a ceasefire by all sides in the province, shows that the diplomatic homework that should be done prior to such important international gatherings was not done properly by Ankara.