There is no clear end to the Syrian war in sight.
Everything is in a state of motion. Nothing is fixed, and amid this confusion and volatility, much can still happen. Such ambiguity benefits foreign forces, many of whom feel it is in their power to change the shape of the war, or at least to pursue their narrow national interests within Syria.
Turkey’s latest actions in neighbouring Syria include the movement of Turkish troops and vehicles into Idlib province, supporting pro-Turkish rebel forces.
Much of Idlib province has been free from the control of the regime of Bashar al-Assad for several years. Idlib city finally fell in late 2015, after an offensive from rebel groups and Islamist forces.
The images generated by the city’s eventual capture were remarkable. In one film clip, which has since disappeared from YouTube, rebels pulled down the flag of the regime and celebrated with jubilant gunfire.
Much has changed since then. Islamists, including al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch, then called the Nusra Front, consolidated their hold on both the city and the province. As moderate, non-sectarian rebels were systematically targeted by the Assad regime and its allies, the Islamists gained ground at their expense, strengthening their grip on Idlib and other areas.
When Nusra, seeking to distance itself from al-Qaeda, changed its name and grouped together with other Islamist forces to form Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), this situation was only consolidated.
At the same time, various diplomatic efforts ground on, some of which attempted to set up ‘safe zones’ within Syria, where aircraft from the regime and its allies would be prevented from bombing civilians and civil infrastructure. When this was nominally agreed, Idlib was declared a ‘deconfliction zone’.
Here, however, as elsewhere, there was no ceasefire. The violence continued, and the bombs kept falling.
Regime and Russian planes continued to attack non-military targets, including medical centres. Recent high-profile aerial attacks include several regime and Russian strikes on hospitals, which have been confirmed and documented by Medecins Sans Frontieres.
It is into this sad and increasingly desperate picture that Turkish-backed forces have arrived.
The Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said last week that his forces would be involved in a serious action in Idlib. It was initially assumed by some that this would mean targeting HTS. Theoretically, this seems reasonable.
Turkey’s Operation Euphrates Shield, in which Syrian rebels supported by the Turkish state captured much territory from IS in northern Syria, set the tone for Turkey’s intervention in Syria: anti-Islamist, pro-rebel.
Turkey has to be seen to be co-operating with rebel forces, even though some Turkish-supported Free Syrian Army fighters are said to be unpopular within parts of Syria. They are also accused of lacking local support in Idlib.
It might be assumed that Turkey had much to gain from aiding its rebel allies in wresting territory from HTS and other Islamist groups, but this would be incorrect.
Instead, a serious confrontation with HTS is unlikely. It is in neither the interests of Turkey and its partners nor HTS. There would undoubtedly be an explosion in violence if the expected conflict was sparked. It would escalate dramatically and could very possibly spiral out of control, hurting each party. Both would lose out and no side could conceivably gain real advantage.
The suggestion that HTS is weak in Idlib, which has been voiced by rebels, is not correct. This reality can be seen in how Turkey is acting vis-à-vis the Islamists.
Hassan Hassan, a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, tweeted this week that his sources suggest that ‘an effort to keep things peaceful between Turkey and HTS is so far successful’.
There is the possibility that, if Idlib were reduced to rubble and chaos, the Assad regime could be the sole beneficiary. And this would help no one else – not Turkey and its rebel allies, not HTS, and certainly not the people of Idlib, who have suffered extensively at the hands of the regime and its international backers.
Turkey’s intervention is restricted by the weakness of its local allies, the strength of HTS within Idlib, the prospect of real catastrophe if widespread fighting broke out, and also – significantly – Russian pressure.
Analysts quickly said that the Turkish move could only have been undertaken with the knowledge and likely support of Russia, so essential has the latter become to internal power dynamics within Syria.
This is a profoundly depressing thought. Russian planes and Russian bombs have terrorised the people of Idlib. And even an intervention along Turkey’s southern border, ostensibly to restore an international ceasefire which the regime keeps breaking, has to be undertaken with Russian permission. This is remarkable because it is so perverse.
But in Syria, perversity is increasingly unavoidable.
The Assad regime has not been meaningfully sanctioned for its chemical war crimes and mass murder in prisons. It is unlikely, therefore, that its breaking of internationally agreed ceasefires and destruction of medical centres will be the point at which the world comes to its senses and declares that enough is enough.
Assad’s Russian backer has been rewarded for its brutality and given an outsized role in every step of Syria’s future. This is the practical consequence of the United States failing to fill the large power vacuum which Syria rapidly became, a situation which can only be exacerbated by the collapse in the amount of the territory held by the Islamic State group.
Turkey can only do what it can to secure its interests in this fundamentally unstable situation. This means not tackling the problem of HTS, and running the risk of ultimately aiding the Assad regime. The Turkish intervention could also go wrong in other ways.
A military offensive into Idlib from a foreign power, even a neighbouring one intent on doing little damage, could contribute to the misery of a civilian population already menaced by airstrikes, and for whom life has been made deliberately unendurable. In contemplating this new intervention, one can only note that so much could go wrong, so little right.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.