Read Time: 8 Minutes
The crisis in Idlib and Syrian between Turkey, Iran and Russia

‘Syria is a Playground for Russian Arms Technology’

Interview mit Fabrice Balanche über den Kampf um Idlib und die Türkei und Russland in Syrien
Photograph: Sam Alrefaie

Nearly a million people are caught up between the battle lines in Idlib. French Syria expert Fabrice Balanche explains why Russia’s deal with Erdoğan failed, and yet Moscow still holds all the cards.

zenith: Monsieur Balanche, the Syrian Army and its Russian and Iranian partners have started a campaign to retake Idlib, the last opposition-held province of Syria. Why now?

Fabrice Balanche: The Syrian regime is tightening its grip on the country and obviously doesn’t want to accept the last opposition stronghold there. An earlier campaign scheduled for last September was canceled due to Turkish objections. So, Russia and Turkey settled this through the Sochi Agreement. However, the Turkish side could not keep up with its promises made in the agreement to create a military buffer zone excluding “radical” rebel groups like Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS). To the contrary, a Turkish-backed new rebel coalition, the National Liberation Front, which was formed in order to squash HTS, lost the inner-rebel confrontation. And HTS is now controlling roughly 80 percent of Idlib Province. Erdoğan failed.


Where does Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham come from?

HTS is an offspring of the Nusra Front, which was the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda, and various other similar rebel groups. While HTS has tried to position itself as less radical and has not renewed its pledge to Al-Qaeda, various components of it, such as the Ansar Al-Din Front and the Turkestan Islamist Party (TIP) are still affiliated to Al-Qaeda. The Al-Qaeda legacy also plays an important part when it comes to mobilizing fighters and get financial support. Unlike other groups like Kurdish YPG or the so-called Islamic State (IS), the majority of HTS affiliated fighters and leadership come from Syria itself. Exceptions are the Ansar Al-Din Front with mostly foreign fighters as well as the TIP with roughly 3,000 Uighur fighters.


How is the group financing itself?

Nusra used to receive funding from Turkey, Saudi-Arabia, and Qatar. I don’t know if HTS still receives funds from Saudi-Arabia today, but their main sources of income stems from the control of Idlib province: taxes, cross-border trade, selling of properties from minorities like Christians, Alawites, or former civil servants. Watad, the company in charge of oil and gas supply to Idlib, is a branch of HTS.


‘Turkey really needs to retain some leverage on Idlib in order to trade it off against something else with regards to the Kurds’


So, if Turkey has not delivered, what is the Russian strategy in Idlib?

Russia wants to stabilize the regime. And if the Russians want to stabilize the regime, they need to stabilize the regime’s grip on northern Syria and rebuild Aleppo. Aleppo is the capital of the North. That’s were Idlib, and the Latakia-Aleppo motorway comes into play…


…The highway is one of the main transport links in northern Syria and divides the province into two halves.

Currently, there is only one simple road to Aleppo connecting the city to the rest of Syria, so reconstructing the city is difficult. It is blocked from its hinterland. On the other hand, Russia does not want to fully antagonize Erdoğan again and push him towards the American side. Turkey is walking a tightrope, maneuvering between Russia and the West and is seen as a potential Trojan horse within Nato.


Ignoring warning from Washington, Nato member Turkey has just announced the purchase of Russian S-400 missiles.

For Russia, it is very important to cause trouble inside Nato. Turkey was very angry about the American support for the Kurdish forces in northern Syria. Of course, there are Syrian Kurds in the upper ranks of the YPG. But they are controlled by Turkish PKK veterans. Erdoğan saw the YPG crossing the Euphrates river and feared they would link Manbij and Afrin, thus controlling the entire border to Turkey. So, this development was the root cause of the Turkish-Russian deal on Idlib last year. Since then, every time, the Syrian Army has made successful advances, it is because Erdoğan has stopped his direct or logistic support for rebel groups in exchange for a deal.


What is Erdoğan getting in exchange?

Look at eastern Aleppo. Erdoğan allowed the Syrian Army to retake eastern Aleppo in exchange for Erdoğan entering Syria in the fall of 2016. In the fall of 2017, the Syrian Army took eastern Idlib. In exchange, Erdoğan would take Afrin. So, after the Sochi Agreement, Erdoğan wanted something in exchange. Like Manbij or a large offensive against the Kurds. The problem: The American presence in the Kurdish areas. So, Putin might have said to Erdoğan: Do whatever you want, for us it is not a problem. Just talk to the Americans and pressurize them. So that’s what the Turks did. It worked and they got the Trump Declaration, announcing an American withdrawal from Syria. So, it is important to understand: The situation in Idlib and the situation in northeastern Syria are very strongly linked. Turkey really needs to retain some leverage on Idlib in order to trade it off against something else with regards to the Kurds.


‘The US has little problems with Russia’s presence in Syria, but much more so with Iran’s’


Looking at the current offensive, the situation is quite different north and south of the Latakia-Aleppo highway. So far, only the south seems to be shelled.

This tactic of dividing rebel-held territories into smaller pockets and slowly taking them out one after another has been applied already in Ghouta, in Deraa, in eastern Aleppo. The fighters in Idlib are probably 50.000 in total. Many of them are professional jihadists, they have nothing to lose. But if you leave the rebels space to fall back to a safe pocket in northern Idlib, they might fight less. That’s why you have almost no shelling north of the highway for the moment. Just in Idlib City, it’s a bit different, but the targets are chosen carefully for strategic purposes. Another reason: refugees. There needs to be space for the rebels and their families to fall back to, instead of pushing up to one million refugees across the border into Turkey right now. At least, if Russia and the Syrian regime are smart. Because this would leave a backdoor open for Erdoğan to strike a deal on the refugees and finally buy the S-400 missile system in exchange.


So how is the battle for Idlib going to play out then?

I think it is quite clear, that in the long run, the regime will retake the entire province. Thanks to Russian support, the regime would be able to take the whole province back until the end of the year. And, if they don’t, it would be because of a Russian-Turkish agreement. But I think the Russians will take at least half of the province, up until the motorway, for now.


A large percentage of foreign fighters in Idlib are Chinese nationals of Uighur descent, while hundreds of thousand Uighurs are detained in Chinese “re-education camps”.

China is discretely supporting the Syrian regime. With weapons, money, I don’t know. And that is partly because of the Uighurs. The Uighur issue has a high priority for China. And it is also part of the leverage that Turkey has on China. Most Uighurs fighting in Idlib came through Turkey. There are several hundred thousand Uighurs living there. The Turkish consulates give out residence permits to Uighur refugees in Thailand and Malaysia. And once in Turkey, the Jihadis recruit them there. In other cases, Turkey is used as a transit for Uighur jihadists from Afghanistan. If we look at Central Asia, apart from Tajikistan, all countries are culturally closely linked to Turkey and speak Turkic languages. And China does not want a Turkish axis to Central Asia. This also plays into Chinese considerations in Syria.


Where does the US stand right now? US Foreign Secretary Mike Pompeo has just been to Moscow to discuss Syria.

I think the White House has realized that the withdrawal plan had been a mistake. The Americans are not stupid. They know who the guys in Idlib are. They know that HTS are Jihadis. But they also don’t want the Russian offensive to succeed. Because they want to destroy the Iranian axis in the Levant stretching from Lebanon to Syria and Iraq. So, the Americans might try to convince Russia to push Iran out of Syria, as well. Because the US has little problems with Russia’s presence in Syria, but much more so with Iran’s.


‘The main reason for Russia to come to Syria in the first place was to encircle Turkey’


There are many reports about growing tensions between Iran and Russia in Syria.

I don’t think so actually. Because the Russian-Iranian axis is not just about Syria. It is also about Central Asia and beyond. Putin would like to be the master of Syria. But if he works to limit the Iranian influence, Iran might try to kick him out. Russia needs Iran in the Middle East. I think the main reason for Russia to come to Syria in the first place was to encircle Turkey. Turkey and Russia are natural competitors in the region.


In which areas do both countries compete?

Look at gas. If a lot of gas from Egypt, Israel, Saudi-Arabia and so on goes to Europe via Turkey, we won’t need Russian gas anymore. The vast majority of Russian exports are oil and gas. So, it is Russia’s key interest to retain its markets and get a good price. And the best way to get a good oil price is to pressure Saudi-Arabia. The Saudis are the oil price regulator of the world. If they increase production, the oil price goes down. In spring 2015, when Russia decided to intervene in Syria, the price went down. It was not sustainable for Russia. And what is the best way to pressure Saudi Arabia? Work with Iran. Russia has this leverage on Saudi-Arabia through Iran, and they are using it. And that’s why Russia has little interest to break with Iran. Also, if you look at Central Asia, Russia does not want Iran to further destabilize its already shaky leverage on Central Asia, and it needs Iran to limit American influence in the Middle East.


What could the US offer Russia to break with Iran?

Traditional measures would be to lift sanctions and to give the Russians a carte blanche in Syria, if the Russians broke with Iran. But I think Russia would refuse that. Another reason for that is the lack of trust in the West in Russia, which stems from the fall of the Soviet Union, when the West did not keep many of its promises.


Russia’s economy is weak and dependent on energy exports, little technical innovations come from Russia and the population is shrinking. How sustainable is the Russian gamble?

If Russia continues like that for five years, for ten years, it is just enough for Putin. The war is not that expensive for Russia. They spend around 2 billion USD per year. But the investment is paying off, strategically and economically. Syria is also a playground for Russian arms technology. This has allowed Russia to increase its arms exports to India, Indonesia, and many other countries. We are talking about roughly 20 billion USD of new arms deals here. The oil price increased a lot. The human cost is also rather low, especially compared to Afghanistan. Russia has a high priority to keep losses among its soldiers minimal. That’s why we have a lot of mercenaries, from the Wagner Group and other, deployed in Syria. Russian soldiers are mostly staying at their bases.


So, there is no way to convince Russia to drop Iran?

No. Maybe if you lift all sanctions and accept the seizure of Crimea. But this won’t happen. Especially as we are seeing the end of the first Trump presidency. In a pre-election environment, the US is traditionally not willing to invest much in risky foreign policy adventures.

Fabrice Balanche is a geographer and political scientist and is an associate professor at the University of Lyon. He is also a Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Sam Alrefaie and Leo Wigger