Turkey is preparing to launch the second phase of Operation Euphrates Shield after the next round of Astana peace talks scheduled to take place on September 13-15. The Turkish military has prepared a road map. This month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned of upcoming operations on the Syrian soil.
Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS), an alliance led by al Qaeda's former Syrian branch, has consolidated its grip over large parts of Idlib after their main rival, the Kuwait-backed Ahrar al Sham, was ousted from the province's main towns and villages. The HTS is even crueler than Islamic State (IS). Its leadership rejects the very idea of dialogue with anyone. The group is a great spoiler and a hindrance on the way to Syria’s crisis management based on the Astana peace process. No ceasefire or peace is possible as long as this Al-Qaeda affiliate controls the province and its border with Turkey.
After airstrikes Turkish troops will enter the northern part of the Idlib province to establish a de-escalation zone. Turkey will coordinate its activities with Russia and Iran. Russia will exchange intelligence and keep the air space open for unmanned aerial vehicles’ flights.
Russia and Iran will operate in the southern part of Idlib while Turkish forces will be advancing from the north. In June, Russia and Turkey announced the plans to set up a jointly controlled de-escalation zone in the province. Russian military police units have demonstrated their effectiveness as peacekeepers in other regions of Syria. They are ready to join with Turkish military establishing and safeguarding a zone in the northern part of Idlib after jihadist formations are routed there.
Ankara is also coordinating activities with Tehran. Last month, a senior Turkish delegation from the National Intelligence Organization (M.I.T.), the Turkish Armed Forces (T.S.K.) and the Foreign Ministry met Iranian and Russian officials in Tehran to discuss latest developments in Idlib and Aleppo, particularly in the district of Afrin. This month, a high-level Iranian military delegation visited Ankara to discuss further steps in Syria. According to Daily Sabah, a Turkish pro-government outlet, a Turkish diplomat said that the Turkish and Iranian military chiefs «shook hands on a joint de-escalation zone mechanism in Idlib, which would also include the Russian military».
The plan for de-escalation zones agreed on in Astana has already proven to be a successful strategy in the southern part of Syria.
It’s not the first time the servicemen of Russia and Turkey will coordinate their activities. In January, Russian aircraft supported Turkish forces in the battle against Islamic State militants holding the town of al-Bab northeast of Aleppo. A group of Russian warplanes, consisting of four Su-24Ms, four Su-25s and one bomber Su-34, as well as eight Turkish fighter jets, four F-16s and four F-4s, participated in the first joint airstrike. It was the first time that air forces of Russia and Turkey were engaged in a joint operation conducted with the consent of the Syrian government.
Military cooperation between the two countries is on the rise. 2016, Russia and Turkey signed a declaration on unprecedented partnership in defense industry. Ankara also seeks procurement deals in electronic systems, ammunitions and missile technology. The parties agreed to form a joint military and intelligence mechanism to coordinate their activities in the Middle East.
The purchase of Russian S-400 cutting-edge long-range air defense system is a slam dunk deal. The readiness of Russia to sell this weapon system to Turkey has been confirmed by President Vladimir Putin. According to Alexander Mikheev, the Director General of Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport, the talks on the contract have entered the final phase.
The system is capable of shooting down aircraft at ranges of up to 400 km and ballistic missiles at a range of 60 km. It can engage up to 36 targets simultaneously, using various missile types for different targets. It will be the first weapon in Turkey’s inventory not compatible with NATO systems. It is widely believed that the S-400 is the best air defense system in the world. The first two batteries would be made in Russia, while the other two would be produced in Turkey after Russia transferred the necessary know-how. With Russia’s help, Turkey will greatly enhance its industrial base.
It should be noted that the United States has raised concerns over NATO ally Turkey’s plan to purchase this advanced air defense system from Russia. Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis told a press briefing in Washington on July 31 that the S-400 system Turkey plans to buy may have inconsistencies with other equipment used by NATO. «Generally, we think that it is more suitable for allies to buy equipment that can work together in harmony,» Davis said. Indeed, the deal is a part of broader picture, with Ankara getting farther away from the West shifting to other poles of power.
It is not Moscow only. Ankara is also getting closer to Beijing. The two countries are closely cooperating to implement China’s One Belt One Road project. Turkey is again taking the position as a key investment and cooperation partner that will help bridge the East and the West.
Politically Turkey has been gradually getting closer to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). Ankara is studying the possibility of joining the SCO as a full-fledged member. It is also showing increasing interest in the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU). It was invited to join the organization in 2014. This will open new opportunities for developing trade. Furthermore, many of the present and potential members of the EAEU are countries with whom Turkey already has close relations in many areas. This multi-dimensional foreign policy strengthens Turkey’s standing in the world.
A successful military operation in Idlib conducted by Turkey – a NATO member supported by Russia – will by and large put an end to large-scale combat operations in Syria to make the de-escalation zones strategy finally win. There is no doubt that the remnants of Islamic State group still trying to hold ground in Deir ez Zor are doomed to be eliminated soon. The issue of Syria’s future will come to the fore, with President Assad still in power and Russia, Turkey and Iran trio to play the key role in any international effort aimed at peace settlement.