Turkish troops were put on alert after rebels backed by the country crossed into Syria on Saturday as part of a joint mission with Russia and Iran to monitor a ceasefire agreement and pacify a rebel stronghold in northwest Syria.
Turkey beefed up troops on the border since the three countries agreed to establish a combat-free zone in the Syrian province of Idlib — largely controlled by former al-Qaeda militants — and to monitor any violations by opposition groups or forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Solid steps will be taken in the coming days following discussions between the parties this week, Ibrahim Kalin, spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told state-run TRT television on Thursday.
On Saturday, Free Syrian Army rebels, riding on the back of trucks with automatic weapons, crossed into Idlib via Turkey as the troops received orders about where they will be deployed in Syria, Hurriyet newspaper reported.
The moves come after Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Ankara to dine with Erdogan on Sept. 28. Erdogan then traveled to Tehran on Wednesday to meet with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani. The Turkish leader’s coordination with Russia and Iran comes amid deepening tensions with the U.S., exacerbated by Washington’s decision to deliver arms to Kurdish groups that Turkey views as terrorists.
Turkish troops are expected to be deployed inside Idlib with Russians stationed around the city, and the collaboration emphasizes the closer ties between Erdogan and Putin, a relationship viewed with concern by Turkey’s NATO allies. It also represents a shift in Ankara’s attitude to Syrian leader Assad, analysts said. Turkey has long opposed any political transition under him, but Russia’s intervention in Syria’s civil war shored up the president after years of Turkish and U.S. insistence that he must go.
By joining the Idlib mission, Turkey is “de facto agreeing to the transition of power for Assad,” Talha Kose, an analyst with the Ankara-based Foundation for Political and Social Research, said at a conference on Syria in Istanbul on Thursday. “It is a very risky area — Turkey may face a backlash from moderate rebels if it can’t deliver humanitarian services” and may also “come under pressure” from Russia and Iran to eliminate militants, he said.
Turkey’s goal will be to prevent violations of the ceasefire agreement, deliver aid to civilians and pacify groups including the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Kalin said, referring to the al-Qaeda-linked militants. It is unclear where Iranian forces would be stationed.
A successful mission would help Assad focus on fighting Islamic State in eastern Syria, Emre Ersen, an analyst at Istanbul’s Marmara University, said at the conference. In addition to HTS fighters, Idlib contains factions of the Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army who fought against the Syrian president.
Turkey should rely on the moderate rebels in Idlib, including the Free Syrian Army, to fight the Islamic militants and avoid any unilateral military action that could be construed as violating the terms of the agreement, said Kose.
The scale of Turkey’s military buildup has raised questions about whether it has ambitions after Idlib, particularly in the neighboring Kurdish-run province of Afrin. Turkey has threatened to clear the province of Kurdish forces that it regards as belonging to a terrorist group with links to the PKK, which has long battled for autonomy in Turkey’s southeast.
Turkey’s Syria policy “may be serving other goals beyond Idlib,” said Hakki Uygur, an analyst at the Center for Iranian Studies in Ankara. Turkey is seeking the support of both Russia and Iran against the Kurds in Syria, he said.