ANKARA: Amid news of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime’s current preparations for a military operation in the opposition-held northwestern province of Idlib, experts anticipate a massive influx of civilians into neighboring Turkey. There are currently around 2.5 million displaced civilians in Idlib, according to the UN.
Idlib is designated as a de-escalation zone by Turkey, Russia and Iran, and Turkish Armed Forces have so far built 12 observation posts in the region, as part of the Astana deal that was brokered between the three countries. The majority of Idlib is currently held by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), which is led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate, the extremist militant group Jabhat Al-Nusra.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is expected to visit Ankara on Aug. 13 to hold talks with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on recent developments in Syria.
Experts interviewed by Arab News underline the need to resolve this imminent crisis with regional and international partners diplomatically. The UN will ask Ankara to keep its borders open to the refugees fleeing the regime attack on Idlib, according to press reports.
Metin Corabatir, a former spokesman for the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Turkey and president of the Research Center on Asylum and Migration in Ankara, thinks that, as there could be armed elements among the refugees, Turkey may decide against taking them in, due to domestic security concerns.
“Ankara should negotiate with their international partners over this humanitarian situation, and ask that the burden be shared, rather than struggling alone with a potential refugee influx,” he told Arab News.
Besides security concerns, Turkey’s economic downturn, and a surge of anti-refugee public sentiment also mean Ankara will likely be unwilling to open its borders to refugees from Idlib. Turkey already hosts over 3.5 million Syrian refugees, according to the latest figures.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan are expected to meet in September, and the refugee issue will top Turkey’s agenda for that meeting.
Corabatir believes that any military offensive by the Syrian regime in Idlib would draw Turkey into the conflict.
“Turkey will either protect the security of its military personnel in the observation towers, or decide to withdraw from the area where it is a guarantor country — which would mean the collapse of the Astana deal,” he said.
Sinan Hatahet, a senior fellow at Al-Sharq Forum in Istanbul, said Ankara is worried that an attack on Idlib will provoke a new influx of refugees, at a time when it is seeking to stabilize northern Aleppo to accommodate repatriated refugees from southern Turkey.
“Moreover, Ankara does not wish to host more Syrian refugees as their integration is increasingly becoming a topic of heated debate on the domestic scene,” he told Arab News.
According to Hatahet, Ankara does not consider all areas of Idlib to be of equal importance, and does not intend to maintain a presence beyond a narrow buffer along its borders.
“Ultimately, Turkey will seek a grand bargain in the north and would not shy away from using Idlib as a bargaining chip in exchange for stabilizing Afrin and the Euphrates Shield areas,” he noted.
Experts suggest that Turkey will expect Russia to restrain Assad’s potential offensive in Idlib. Russia, however, prioritizes the extermination of extremists in the region. Lavrov recently stated that it was “necessary to deal a final blow to terrorists near Idlib.”
Hatahet believes Turkey and Russia could arrange a deal whereby Russia is able to attack extremists in Idlib, but will otherwise remain on the periphery of the territory.
“Erdogan recently spoke to Putin and warned him that targeting civilians in Idlib could destroy the spirit of the Astana accord,” he said, but added that Assad’s regime is growing in confidence and that containing its forces is no easy task.