Turkey has well established links with various Syrian Turkmen rebels and Salafist jihadists in Idlib, – Jabhat Al Nusra (Jabhat Fatah al-Sham/Al Qaeda/Hayat Tahrir al-Sham), the Free Syria Army (FSA), Ahrar al-Sham, and the Free Idlib Army.
But what strategic aims lie behind Turkish meddling in Idlib? Here are the main ones:
Efforts to win Aleppo and gain a foothold into Syria and its future
The battle of Aleppo started in 2012 after the Aleppan merchant classes refused to participate in the uprisings against the Assad government. This caused various rebel groups to take war to Aleppo in an attempt to rally Aleppans to the cause of regime change. This in turn drew attention from the Syrian government, who tried to quell the mostly foreign backed insurgency. At the time, Turkey was vehemently opposed to Assad, and actively began to support various rebel terrorist factions aimed at deposing the Syrian government. Around Aleppo, groups such as the Sultan Murad Division, Nour al-Din al-Zenki, Fatah Halab and the Free Syria Army received substantial Turkish support. Turkey also controlled the border regions with Idlib province, and used this to smuggle arms, money and fighters into Idlib, nurturing a buffer state of anti-government activity within Syria along with fellow support from British, American, Israeli, Qatari and Saudi intelligence. However, the battle of Aleppo concluded in December 2016, with a Syrian government victory, and Western-Turkish terrorists had to withdraw back into Idlib. The ensuing terrorist infighting over the loss fractured the cause and Idlib became a hotbed of terrorism, fragmentation and banditry. In the midst of this, relations with the US and NATO soured and Turkey was drawn into the fold by Russia, through economic and political incentives, as well as by Iran, where both faced a common threat with Kurdish ambitions. Turkey has thus accepted Assad as fait accompli in 2017, and acknowledged the failure of the regime change project. As such, the post-Aleppo defeat resulted in many of these terrorist groups lingering around the jihadist hotbed of Idlib.
Keeping Afrin Kurdish ambitions in check
But perhaps the greatest strategic reason for its eye on Idlib was to keep the Kurds of Afrin in check. Turkish fear of the Kurds is well known. The Russians had to send troops to Afrin canton to prevent the Turks from threatening to march in. Turkey even supported ISIS against the Kurds. The Turks, while supporting the anti-Assad movement, surely must have always kept an eye on the Kurds. The Kurds of Syria are land-locked, and have previously called for access to the Mediterranean sea. Nobody really knows whether the Kurds will follow through with these claims, but the Turkish military seems to be taking them very seriously. Thus with the failure of taking Aleppo, rampant jihadist infighting in Idlib, burgeoning Russo-Turkish-Iranian cooperation, deteriorating relations with the US and NATO, Turkey’s main moves in Idlib now are to contain the Kurds in Afrin. As Turkey and Russia agree to implement the Idlib de-escalation zone, this greenlights some degree of Turkish incursion into Syrian territory, in Idlib. Nobody actually believes they will really fight Al Qaeda in Idlib, as agreed with Russia and Iran. Turkey has supported and continues to support Al Qaeda, so turning on this still-powerful group and its various proxies is bound to bleed the Turkish military dry if it chooses to foolishly get trapped fighting asymmetric warfare in Syria. Turkey will most likely use the de-escalation agreement to enforce a check on the YPG instead, while Russia seems much more concerned with crushing Al Qaeda, and Iran holds relatively little leverage around Idlib. This is why Turkish-Russian cooperation is the more dominant dynamic in north-western Syria, and the clashing objectives of both Erdogan and Putin in Idlib will test the relationship once again.