The Idlib Challenge and the Tehran Summit

September 9, 2018

The much-awaited Tehran meeting between Iranian, Russian and Turkish Presidents, generally viewed as the “Idlib Summit”, has ended with a Joint Statement on Syria (*).

Paragraph 2 of the Statement emphasizes the three Presidents’ commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of Syria. Moreover, it rejects all attempts to create new realities on the ground under the pretext of combating terrorism and states their determination to stand against separatist agendas aimed at undermining the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria as well as the national security of neighboring countries.

Paragraphs 3 and 4 focus on the Idlib conundrum.

Paragraph 3 says that the three Presidents have decided to address the problem in line with the above-mentioned principles and the spirit of cooperation that has characterized the Astana format.

Paragraph 4 reaffirms the determination of the three Presidents to continue cooperation in order to ultimately eliminate DAESH/ISIL, Al-Nusra Front and all other individuals, groups, undertakings and entities associated with Al-Qaeda or DAESH/ISIL, as they have been designated as terrorists by the UN Security Council. It underlines the importance of separating those terrorist groups and the armed opposition groups which had joined or would join the ceasefire regime.

Though no names were called, paragraph 2 is obviously targets the PYD/YPG and its principal supporter Washington. As such, it must have pleased Ankara. Paragraphs 3 and 4, however, show that the Idlib question remains unresolved with the prospect of a major assault and humanitarian disaster looming particularly after a cease-fire proposal by President Erdogan failed to win the support of his Russian and Iranian counterparts.

Thus, by all indications, gaining time in Idlib has become of paramount importance. The question is for how long and how the Idlib problem will impact Ankara’s relations with Moscow. It is interesting in this connection that Ankara and Washington, with their relationship at its lowest point in decades, now find themselves on the same page in Idlib.

The concentration of a large number of terrorists in an area home to nearly three million civilians, nearly half of them displaced from war zones elsewhere in Syria, justifies calling the Idlib problem the last and the most complicated battlefield challenge of the Syrian conflict now in its eighth year. The only certainty is that a major assault on Idlib will result in a humanitarian disaster.

At his joint news conference with Foreign Minister Çavuşoğlu in Moscow, on August 24, 2018, Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that there are several tens of thousands of militants from the so-called Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra group, who are trying to control Idlib and hamper the efforts, in particular, undertaken by Turkey to separate healthy opposition from terrorist groups.

On August 30, 2018 at a press stakeout, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said that the estimates of al-Qaeda, al-Nusra, “whatever name they want to call themselves”, is more or less around 10,000 plus families…”

And on September 7, 2018, the BBC reported that up to 30,000 rebel and jihadist fighters are believed to be in Idlib with an estimated 10,000 of them under the command of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) designated by Ankara as a terrorist organization last week.

In its briefing 63 of September 3, 2018 titled “Saving Idlib from Destruction” the International Crisis Group has said: “There is no obvious solution for Idlib, given the large number of jihadist militants entrenched there and the unacceptably high cost of any attempt to remove them…”

To put it in a nutshell, the following questions raised in an earlier post on Idlib (**) are still unanswered after the Tehran Summit:

  • Are Russia, Iran and the Assad regime determined to eliminate the militants no matter what?
  • If, in theory, the “militants” were to leave Idlib, where would they go?
  • What if they head towards Afrin, moving even closer to the Turkish border?
  • And above everything else, is there any hope of separating the “healthy opposition” from the “terrorists”?

Unfortunately, there is more. The Iraqi government finds itself in a dilemma over US sanctions targeting Iran. Protesters have stormed the Iranian consulate in Basra, setting it on fire as part of deadly demonstrations to protest against corruption and a lack of basic services. There are reports that President Trump has now agreed to a new strategy that indefinitely extends U.S. military presence in Syria. The U.S. and France, the latter with a very controversial legacy in Syria, are threatening military action should the regime resort to chemical weapons. At his press stakeout Staffan di Mistura also said that the issue of avoiding the potential use of chemical weapons is indeed crucial. But he added, “We all are aware that both the government and al-Nusra have the capability to produce weaponized chlorine, that’s the one people are talking about, not sarin…”

Regardless, the chorus continues, “There is no military solution to the Syrian conflict.”

And some of us in Turkey keep asking ourselves why Turkey became part of this mess. As is the case with Idlib, there is no good answer.



(**) The Idlib Challenge (2) of August 27, 2018






About Ali Tuygan

Ali Tuygan is a graduate of the Faculty of Political Sciences of Ankara University. He joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in January 1967. Between various positions in Ankara, he served at the Turkish Embassy in Brussels, NATO International Staff, Turkish Embassies in Washington and Baghdad, and the Turkish Delegation to NATO. From 1986 to 1989 he was the Principal Private Secretary to the President of the Republic. He then served as ambassador to Ottawa, Riyadh, and Athens. In 1997 he was honored with a decoration by the Italian President. Between these assignments abroad he served twice as Deputy Undersecretary for Political Affairs. In 2004 he was appointed Undersecretary where he remained until the end of 2006 before going to his last foreign assignment as Ambassador to UNESCO. He retired in 2009. In April 2013 he published a book entitled “Gönüllü Diplomat, Dışişlerinde Kırk Yıl” (“Diplomat by Choice, Forty Years in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs”) in which he elaborated on the diplomatic profession and the main issues on the global agenda. He has published articles in Turkish periodicals and newspapers.
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