Ankara is signaling its readiness to use force against radical groups in the Syrian Idlib enclave as part of a deal struck with Moscow, which has been pressuring the Turkish government to comply with terms of an accord made between the Russian and Turkish presidents.
Earlier this month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, agreed to create a demilitarized zone (DMZ) in the rebel-controlled Idlib enclave.
The deal, heralded as a diplomatic triumph by Ankara, averted a Syrian regime offensive backed by Russian forces against the last rebel bastion. With 3 million people trapped in the region, aid groups have been warning of a humanitarian catastrophe.
Ankara now faces the formidable task of removing radical Islamist groups, along with the heavy weapons of rebel forces, from a 15- to 20-kilometer zone by October 15.
“It is one thing to speak in the chambers of the palaces to hold press conferences and so forth. It's another thing to fight on the ground,” former senior Turkish diplomat Aydin Selcen said. “Especially because of Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham elements, which are a 30,000-strong jihadi force in west Idlib, and especially near the Turkish border and within Idlib town itself, what will they decide? Will they agree on this solution? This is the question.”
While addressing reporters Friday, Turkish presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin indicated a readiness to use force against radical groups if they don’t agree to leave the DMZ.
"Persuasion, pacification, other measures, whatever is necessary," Kalin said. Last month, Ankara designated Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, (formally called al-Nusra), as a terrorist organization.
Analysts say Ankara will be careful to avoid a military confrontation and will look to its influence on the rebel opposition.
“The leverage Turkey has is that Turkey is still supporting the Free Syrian Army and many other groups. From the very beginning, they have looked to Turkey for support in fighting [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad,” according to international relations professor Huseyin Bagci of Ankara’s Middle East Technical University.
“But the radical groups linked to Daesh [Islamic State], al-Qaida, al-Nusra,” Bagci continued, “whether Turkey will be effective with those groups, I have some doubts. But Russia is expecting Turkey to get full success to convince all of them to leave, which is very, very difficult, I would say.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stepped up the pressure on Ankara. “Nusra Front terrorists should leave this demilitarized zone by mid-October; all heavy weaponry should be withdrawn from there," Lavrov told a press conference Friday.
Critics of the Idlib deal insist Moscow has trapped Ankara into committing itself to remove or eradicate radical groups from the DMZ, which carries the risk of Turkey being sucked into a conflict with the jihadis.
However, the Idlib deal gives Ankara an opportunity to strengthen its hand in Syria.
"Turkey will definitely increase the number of military personnel in [Idlib] and its influence [in Syria],” said Bagci. "It [Turkey’s military presence] will become a part of the negotiations process in the future with Russia. Definitely, Turkey is using the opportunity, since it's available, to get more military personnel there and keep them there longer."
Under a previous agreement between Moscow and Tehran, Ankara established 12 military observation posts across Idlib. The outposts were part of a deal to create a de-escalation zone for Syrian rebel forces and their families. The threat of a Syrian regime offensive against the region prompted the Turkish military to bolster its presence around the outposts.
Analysts suggest a further consolidation of Turkey’s military presence in Idlib, along with Turkish forces' current control of a large swath of northern Syria, will strengthen Ankara’s efforts to secure its Syrian goals.
“Turkey wants to create a situation in Syria so that these neighboring regions to Turkey that are controlled by pro-Turkish elements continue [to be controlled by them] so that there is no security threat to Turkey,” said Sinan Ulgen head of the Istanbul-based Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, or Edam.
“Secondly, as a result of a political settlement,” he continued, “enough of [a] security guarantee would be provided so that some of the Syrian refugees [in Turkey] can go back to their homes. They are the twin objectives of the Turkish government regarding Syria.”
Turkey claims it is hosting more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees. The Idlib deal between Ankara and Moscow at least for now has removed the threat of another significant exodus of refugees into Turkey.
With Lavrov warning the deal is only an “intermediate step,” critics caution the Idlib deal may offer only a reprieve from a Syrian regime offensive against the rebel enclave. As Ankara seems prepared to use the coming weeks to step up its military presence in Idlib, that will bring a heightened risk of confrontation with jihadi groups.
Analysts say such a marked armed presence, however, also likely will enhance Erdogan’s bargaining position the next time he sits down with Putin to discuss the future of Idlib.