Never mind the drama
In spite of increasing Ankara vs. Washington disagreements in a variety of areas ranging from Ankara’s firm commitment to purchase Russian made S-400 missile defence systems to the continued US alliance with the YPG/PKK terror group in Syria, when it comes to the status of Syria’s Idlib Governorate it would appear that Turkey and the United States are on the same side as both publicly oppose a Damascus led operation in the infamous Governorate.
But the rhetoric only explains a fraction of the picture. For all intents and purposes, the situation is already largely beyond US control in a logistical (key word) sense. The US of course could and may well bomb Syria in relation to what Russia describes as an already filmed false flag chemical weapons attack in or around Idlib. But just as the US missile strikes against Syrian government targets in 2017 and earlier in 2018 proved to be strategically irrelevant, there is little chance that a new set of strikes, even if bigger in terms of firepower, would alter the course of the war.
The reason that a US missile strike would be of great emotional but little strategic value is due to the fact that all of the strategically important parts of Syria are not only under government control but more importantly, are teeming with Russian personnel and equipment. While the US and Russia are on punitively opposite sides in the Syria conflict, each side has a well known agreement not to directly put the other’s men or physical assets in harms way just as both have pledged to work to defend Israel’s self-proclaimed security interests throughout the remainder of the conflict and beyond.
Therefore, any US and/or European attacks on western Syria would necessarily be in areas without Russia personnel which is to say, areas of no great strategic importance to the war effort as a whole. Because of this, there would be something of a theatrical element to a US missile strike in western Syria at this stage in the conflict, just as the supposed disagreements on Idlib between Russia, Iran and Turkey are also largely intentionally melodramatic.
And now for something completely real
What is not being discussed is that a US strike in western Syria would actually put Turkey at a disadvantage because the optics would falsely (key word) indicate that the US has a greater influence over anti-government forces vis-a-vis Turkey. In reality, the only militarily and strategically credible anti-Damascus power operating in western Syria are the Turkish armed forces. The US is simply not in a position to put boots on the ground in western Syria without risking a conflict with Russia – let alone an internal conflict in a White House which is self-evidently deeply divided about having any US boots on the ground anywhere in Syria.
Because of this, it has just been announced that on Monday, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Black Sea city of Sochi to discuss further issues regarding Idlib. It has become clear that Russia and Turkey are essentially in the midst of working out a plan to “divide” Idlib into a formalised Turkish zone of influence which de-facto already exists in the northern parts of the Governorate while in exchange for guarantees of separating Turkish and Syrian forces, Ankara would allow the Syrian Arab Army to retake parts of southern Idlib under the eye of Russian supervisors and possibly some Iranian allied forces, thus representing a Syrian flagged Russian zone of influence with Iran also possibly getting a slice of the south.
According to such a compromise, each of the Astana partners (Russia, Iran, and Turkey) would partly get what they desire and so too would Syria. Likewise, they would each have to compromise in certain key areas. This would express itself in the following way.
Government forces would get to retake part of Idlib and thus gain a substantial boost of morale before making further political concessions according to Russia’s model of a political settlement to the conflict. Thus, Syria would get to feel as though it retook ‘almost’ “every inch” of its territory before the inevitable political compromises come to the fore.
Turkey has invested a great deal of time and effort into building a civil society base in northern Idlib. While Damascus will always detest this fact, it is nevertheless a fact of life. Furthermore, because Turkey has already taken in as many Syrian refugees as it can, any immediate withdrawal from Idlib and northern Aleppo might cause a migrant crisis that Turkey cannot afford as many of the Arabs and Turkmen living under de-facto Ankara rule in northern Syria would not want to live back under Damascus. Because of this, Russia supports Turkey’s role in the region so as to avoid a new migrant crisis on top of a military conflict. In terms of compromise, Russia expects Turkey to allow Damascus’ forces to retake some of southern Idlib in exchange for Russia putting a stop to a would-be Damascus offensive in northern Idlib.
Iran’s economic crisis is such that it cannot afford to assert itself in Idlib vis-a-vis its partners Turkey and Russia – both of whom have very publicly vowed to defy the threat of US sanctions as a result of their continued willingness to engage in commerce with Iran. Because of this, while Tehran holds a view that all of Idlib should be retaken by Damascus, the country isn’t in a position to persuade the Syrian government to defy both Turkey and Russia.
The forthcoming meeting between Putin and Erdogan will be concerned with the specifics of effectively dividing Idlib into zones of influence but it will also be concerned with not allowing the US to attempt and upstage Turkey’s role in Idlib with a grandiose missile strike. While Turkey only offered a mild reaction to the US strike on areas outside of Damascus in spring of 2018, this time around the stakes are higher because Turkey seeks to prove that its partnership with Russia has resulted in an official affirmation of Turkey’s medium-term presence in Idlib.
As the US prepares its options in Idlib, it is now in both Russia and Turkey’s interests to instead hasten the implementation of a compromise for dividing Idlib before the US seeks to undermine the inevitable compromise with a dramatic display of weapons of mass distraction.