Turkey-Russia discord over Idlib defers regime offensive, for now

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on September 17, 2018 amid rising international concern over a looming Syrian government assault in the Idlib province, officials said. (File/AFP)
Updated 15 September 2018

Turkey-Russia discord over Idlib defers regime offensive, for now

  • Idlib is the last major opposition stronghold in the war-torn country
  • Intense negotiations have taken place between Turkey and Russia since the failure of the Tehran summit

ISTANBUL: Disagreement between Turkey and Russia over how to tackle the Syrian rebel stronghold of Idlib seems to have deferred a looming regime offensive on the province, analysts say.
Russia and Turkey are on opposite sides of the conflict, but key global allies.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Russian and Iranian leaders Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani in Tehran on September 7 to discuss Syria, just as a major assault by Russia-backed regime forces on Idlib appeared imminent.
But discord at the summit between Erdogan and Putin, in a rare scene captured on camera, may have prompted Russia to postpone the Idlib strike so as not to provoke Ankara, which is fiercely opposed to a military option.
“I believe an offensive, if there will be one, will not come before several weeks,” a senior Turkish official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Turkey, which backs rebels fighting against President Bashar Assad’s regime, co-sponsors — with regime allies Russia and Iran — the so-called Astana talks launched in January 2017 in the quest for a lasting cease-fire.
To date, the dialogue has resulted in the creation of four pre-cease-fire “de-escalation zones” in Syria, including in Idlib.
Idlib is the last major opposition stronghold in the war-torn country. Sixty percent of the area is controlled by the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) extremist group, an Al-Qaeda branch operating in Syria.
Intense negotiations have taken place between Turkey and Russia since the failure of the Tehran summit, to hammer out a compromise in a bid to avert an assault which Erdogan has cautioned would ignite a “bloodbath.”
Such a compromise could include neutralising the HTS — officially designated as a terror group by Ankara. Erdogan and Putin are expected to discuss the issue when they meet in the Russian resort city of Sochi on Monday.
For Turkey, the stakes are high.
Ankara fears a large-scale assault on Idlib, which lies on its southern border, could trigger a massive flow of refugees onto its soil. Turkey is already home to more than three million Syrians who have fled the conflict.
Abdul Wahab Assi, an analyst at the Syria-based Jusoor Studies Center, said disagreements at the Tehran summit “rule out a possible offensive in the short run, at least until the end of the year.”
He said a possible compromise from the ongoing talks could take the form of a “limited military operation or surgical strikes” targeting the HTS, or modifying the borders of the de-escalation zones to keep armed rebels from certain sectors.
Russia may be open to such a plan, Assi said, as long as it would secure the Idlib section of the Aleppo-Damascus highway and put an end to drone attacks launched from Idlib against Moscow’s main military base of Hmeimim in the neighboring province of Latakia.
Some three million people live in Idlib province and adjacent areas, the United Nations says, around half of whom have already fled their homes in other parts of Syria.
Regime forces and Russian warplanes resumed airstrikes on Idlib in September but the strikes fell in intensity this week.
Turkish media reported Ankara has sent reinforcements, including tanks, to beef up its border with Syria and its observation posts in Idlib.
Turkish military analyst Metin Gurcan, judges these measures to be of a “defensive” nature, aimed at protecting Turkish observation posts against any possible threat.
Gurcan said the lack of an agreement with Ankara could push Moscow, and thus the Syrian regime, to stage an “incremental operation that will last months” rather than a full-fledged attack.
“Russia is trying to keep Ankara in the game,” he told AFP, saying any confrontation between the two countries was “highly unlikely.”
“Moscow needs Turkey as a Sunni power to balance Shiite militias’ presence in northern Syria,” he said.


Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

Updated 37 min 50 sec ago

Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

  • Standoff looms in northern Syrian town of Manbij as Turkish offensive continues

MANBIJ, Syria: Turkey ignored US sanctions and pressed on with its assault on northern Syria on Tuesday, while the Russia-backed Syrian army roared into one of the most hotly contested cities abandoned by US forces in Donald Trump’s retreat.
Reuters journalists accompanied Syrian government forces who entered the center of the city of Manbij, a flashpoint where US troops had previously conducted joint patrols with Turkey.
Russian and Syrian flags were flying from a building on the city outskirts, and from a convoy of military vehicles.
US forces announced they had pulled out of the city.
A week after reversing US policy and moving troops out of the way to allow Turkey to attack Washington’s Syrian allies, Trump announced a package of sanctions to punish Ankara.
But the measures — mainly a hike in steel tariffs and a pause in trade talks — were less robust than financial markets had expected, and Trump’s critics derided them as too feeble to have an impact.
The Turkish lira, which had fallen on the expectation of tougher US measures, recovered after the sanctions were announced, as did its bond and stock markets, with traders noting that Trump had spared Turkish banks.
Trump’s unexpected decision to withhold protection from Syria’s Kurds after a phone call with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan a week ago swiftly upended five years of US policy in the Middle East.
The withdrawal gives a free hand to Washington’s adversaries in the world’s deadliest ongoing war, namely Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.
The United States announced on Sunday it was withdrawing its entire force of 1,000 troops from northern Syria. Its former Kurdish allies immediately forged a new alliance with Assad’s Russia-backed government, inviting the army into towns across the breadth of their territory.
Russian-backed Syrian forces moved swiftly to fill the void left by departing Americans from Manbij west of the Euphrates river, which Turkey has vowed to capture.
“We are out of Manbij,” said Col. Myles B Caggins, spokesman for the US-led coalition in Syria. Troops “are executing a deliberate withdrawal from northeast Syria.”
A group of journalists accompanied by Syrian army personnel journeyed into Manbij city where upon their arrival a group of people gathered, waving the Syrian flag and pictures of Assad.
However the reporters left when gunfire was heard and a group of some 10 young men in Kurdish YPG uniforms began breaking cameras and yelling.
Syrian state media said SDF fighters had opened fire on a march organized by the people of Manbij to welcome the army.
Trump’s pullout ends joint US-Turkish patrols of the Manbij area under a deal aimed to persuade Turkey not to invade.
Syrian state television broadcast footage of what it said was government troops entering Manbij on Tuesday, under their new deal with the Kurds. A resident inside the city told Reuters the Syrian troops were on its outskirts. Turkey-backed Syrian fighters said they would continue their advance toward Manbij.
A Reuters cameraman on the Turkish frontier reported heavy bombardment on Tuesday morning of the Syrian border town of Ras Al-Ain, where a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces reported a fierce battle was taking place.
Trump has defended his reversal of US policy as part of a plan to withdraw the United States from “endless” wars in the Middle East.
But his critics, including senior figures in his own Republican Party, cast it as a betrayal of the Kurds, loyal allies who lost thousands of fighters as the principal ground forces in Washington’s battle against Daesh.
The Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said Trump’s sanctions were too little, too late.
“His announcement of a package of sanctions against Turkey falls very short of reversing that humanitarian disaster.”
Turkey says it aims to defeat the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as terrorists for their links to separatists in Turkey, and to create a “safe zone” where millions of Syrian refugees can be resettled.
The United Nations says 160,000 people have fled their homes as Turkish forces advance. The Kurdish administration puts the number of displaced at 270,000.
The UN Human Rights office said on Tuesday Turkey could be held responsible for war crimes by fighters under its direction, potentially including the assassination of Hevrin Khalaf, a leading Kurdish politician killed on the side of a highway on Saturday by gunmen who posted the incident on the Internet.
Turkish-backed fighters have denied blame for her murder.
Erdogan, who has pledged to continue military operations come what may, said Turkey was giving the world a chance to bring peace to the region.
“The international community missed its opportunity to prevent the Syrian crisis from pulling an entire region into a maelstrom of instability,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “The European Union — and the world — should support what Turkey is trying to do.”
The Syrian army deployments into Kurdish-held territory evacuated by Washington are a victory for President Bashar Assad and his most powerful ally, Russia, giving them a foothold in the biggest remaining swath of the country that had been beyond their grasp.
Trump allies insisted Washington had not given its blessing to the Turkish offensive, and demanded a cease-fire.
“The United States of America simply is not going to tolerate Turkey’s invasion in Syria any further,” Vice President Mike Pence said. “We are calling on Turkey to stand down, end the violence and come to the negotiating table.”
Trump’s sanctions include reimposing steel tariffs and halting talks on a trade deal. But bilateral trade between Turkey and the United States is small — around a tenth the size of Turkey’s trade with Europe. Washington’s most effective form of economic leverage would be to hinder Turkey’s access to US financial markets, a step Trump has so far avoided.
“The sanctions are not related to banking, so the markets will have a positive perception,” said Cem Tozge, asset management director at Ata Invest.
In a potentially more damaging blow, German carmaker Volkswagen said it was postponing a final decision on whether to build a 1 billion euro ($1.1 billion) plant in Turkey, citing concern over “current developments” after international condemnation of the incursion.
European countries have criticized the offensive but have limited their response so far to announcing suspensions of arms sales, although weapons account for only a small fraction of EU-Turkish trade.
Trump said US troops would remain at a small garrison at Tanf in southern Syria “to continue to disrupt remnants” of Daesh. The base on the southern border is hundreds of miles away from the Kurdish area in the north that had previously been the main US theater.