Idlib bombing raises doubts over future of Astana agreement

Turkey had already been discussing extending patrols to Tal Rifaat, in northern Aleppo. (AFP)
Updated 15 March 2019

Idlib bombing raises doubts over future of Astana agreement

  • Moscow claims strikes had been coordinated with Turkey, but Ankara denies that
  • Some experts see the bombing as a sign that Moscow is turning the screw on Erdogan

ANKARA: An escalation of heavy air and artillery strikes on Idlib in northwestern Syria on Wednesday night has raised doubts over the future of the Astana deal between Turkey, Russia and Iran. 

Moscow claimed the bombing of Syria’s last rebel stronghold had been coordinated with Turkey, but this was denied by Ankara.

Under the deal, Turkey was expected to persuade rebel groups to remove heavy weaponry from a designated buffer zone, and convince hard-line groups, including Al-Qaeda affiliated Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), to withdraw completely from major highways as part of a “de-escalation” process.

But HTS fighters remain in place, controlling 80 percent of the region, and criticism of Ankara for failing to honor its part of the agreement is becoming more acute.

Some experts see the bombing as a sign that Moscow is turning the screw on Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, either to assume more responsibility or renegotiate the terms of the deal.

Turkey had already been discussing extending patrols to Tal Rifaat, in northern Aleppo, with the Russians after Defense Minister Hulusi Akar announced similar cooperation would happen in Idlib.

“Perhaps Moscow is trying to raise the stakes to get constructive talks with Ankara on Idlib and find a solution to the future of HTS,” Anton Mardasov, military affairs expert and head of the Department of Middle Eastern Conflicts at the Moscow-based Institute for Innovative Development, told Arab News.

“It’s not profitable for Ankara to confirm the coordination of strikes with Moscow, though the strikes can be used by Turkey to increase pressure on HTS to accept their terms.   

“Negotiations will be beneficial for Russia, to demonstrate a successful Syrian strategy. For Turkey, it is also an opportunity to advance its agenda, although Ankara has long been thinking about balancing its position by intensifying negotiations with its European partners in NATO.”

Turkey is also discussing establishing a joint coordination center in Idlib to manage operations at the behest of the Kremlin, which has criticized Ankara’s lack of engagement in recent months. 

“If there is no political progress, Russia always resorts to hard power moves to motivate their partners. That’s how they will push Turkey to do more,” Yury Barmin, Middle East and North Africa director at the Moscow Policy Group, told Arab News. 

“These attacks are happening against the background of the EU Conference on Syria in Brussels. The Russians are trying to put Syria on the radar of the Europeans to intervene,” he added.

According to Joe Macaron, a resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, Ankara may have approved Russian operations against HTS, but would be reluctant to let its allies believe it was complicit in them. 

“With the current tensions in US-Turkish relations, Ankara has no option but to manage its marriage of convenience with Moscow,” he said.

Erdogan hosts Putin, Rouhani for Syria summit

Updated 4 min 25 sec ago

Erdogan hosts Putin, Rouhani for Syria summit

  • Putin and Rouhani met Erdogan in Ankara for their fifth summit on the conflict since 2017
  • Iran and Russia have been staunch supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed his Russian and Iranian counterparts on Monday for their latest summit on Syria, with attention focused on Damascus’s push on the last rebel-held bastion of Idlib.
Presidents Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani met Erdogan in the Turkish capital Ankara for their fifth summit on the conflict since 2017.
Iran and Russia have been staunch supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Turkey has called for his ouster and backed opposition fighters.
But with Assad’s position looking increasingly secure, Turkey’s priority has shifted to preventing a mass influx of refugees from Idlib in Syria’s northwest.
Turkey is concerned over the steady advance of Syrian forces into the region, backed by Russian air power, despite a series of cease-fires.
Turkey has 12 observation posts in Idlib to enforce a buffer zone agreement struck a year ago with Russia to prevent a full-scale Syrian offensive.
But the posts look increasingly threatened, with one of them cut off from the rest of Idlib when Syrian forces advanced last month.
Russian air strikes have continued in the region despite the latest cease-fire between Ankara and Moscow on August 31.
“A large number of terrorists are still present in this zone... and fighters continue to fire on the positions of government forces,” Kremlin adviser Yuri Ushakov said on Friday.
The Turkish presidency said the leaders would discuss the latest developments in Syria as well as “ensuring the necessary conditions for the voluntary return of refugees and discussing the joint step to be taken in the period ahead with the aim of achieving a lasting political solution.”
Moscow is keen to see progress on establishing a constitutional committee to oversee the next stage of the political settlement in Syria.
That would give Putin a political win to add to the military victories, said Dareen Khalifa, senior Syria analyst at International Crisis Group.
But she said expectations should remain low.
Even if they can agree on who will form the committee, “this leaves a crux of issues unaddressed for the future of the political process including the regime’s ability and willingness to undertake any kind of political reform,” Khalifa told AFP.
High on everyone’s mind at the summit will be the weekend attack on Saudi oil facilities, which Washington has blamed on Tehran, deepening bilateral tensions and putting the region on the brink of further conflict.
The leaders are expected to hold one-on-one meetings before the three-way summit, the Kremlin said.
They will also hold a closing news conference with a view to presenting a joint declaration.
Iran has been a crucial actor on the battlefield in Syria, but has kept a lower profile in recent months. Its focus has been on removing Israeli and US involvement.
“A large part of Syria’s problems have been solved and some still remain, the most important of which is the Idlib region and east of Euphrates, as well as the Zionist regime (Israel)’s aggressions and America’s interventionist presence,” Rouhani said in a televised statement as he left Iran.
Meanwhile, Turkey has other concerns regarding Syria.
It has repeatedly threatened to launch a cross-border offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces, whom it sees as allied to Kurdish militants in its own territory.
That has strained Turkey’s relations with its NATO ally, the United States, which backs the Syrian Kurds as the main fighting force against the Daesh group (IS).
The US has vowed to work with Turkey to clear Kurdish forces away from its border, but Ankara says progress has so far been “cosmetic” and it could launch an operation into Syria by the end of this month.
Turkey has conducted previous offensives against Daesh in 2016 and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in 2018.