ANKARA: The unfolding crisis in Syria’s Idlib province, the last rebel stronghold, is pushing Turkey to improve its relations with the West.
Two Turkish soldiers were killed in Idlib on Thursday in an airstrike by the Syrian regime. The following day, in a phone call with his French and German counterparts, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for “concrete action” to prevent a humanitarian crisis in Idlib.
Erdogan “stressed the need to stop the aggression of the regime and its supporters in Idlib, and emphasized the importance of providing strong support through concrete actions to prevent a humanitarian crisis,” his office said.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke on Thursday to Russian President Vladimir Putin to express their concern about the humanitarian crisis and to urge an end to the escalating fighting in Idlib.
Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara office director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told Arab News: “Despite many differences between Turkey and EU member states on foreign policy issues ranging from northeast Syria to Libya, they’re stakeholders in preventing a humanitarian disaster in Idlib and a new wave of refugees from Syria to Turkey and Europe.”
He said it would be out of the question for Western countries to send troops to Idlib, but they could provide Turkey with political support and Patriot surface-to-air missile systems close to the border with Syria.
“A declaration of commitment to improving the livelihoods of residents in Idlib after the regime offensive is averted should also be in the mix,” he added.
“A follow-up of the quadripartite meeting between the leaders of France, Germany, Turkey and the UK, this time in Turkey, would be a very good platform for announcing solidarity with Turkey.”
Turkish, French, German and British leaders convened in London last December ahead of a NATO Summit to discuss the Syrian crisis. They agreed to meet at least once a year.
Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat and co-founder of People Demand Change Inc., told Arab News: “Nobody considers the humanitarian crisis a top priority right now. The humanitarian tool has become the price of the ongoing struggle among the powers in the region.”
He said any potential summit between Turkey and EU leaders should focus on the refugee issue because of the influx of civilians in Idlib fleeing from Russian-backed bombings toward the Turkish border.
“EU leaders should agree to provide Turkey with more financial assistance to absorb the refugees, and must put more pressure on Russia to stop the Idlib operation,” he added.
“EU countries also should push for a serious political settlement, otherwise every time Russia has a conflict with Turkey, another crisis will come up.”
But Oubai Shahbandar, an Istanbul-based defense analyst, told Arab News: “Macron and Merkel have zero impact on either the balance of power in Syria or the humanitarian catastrophe that’s unfolding in Idlib. I doubt that Macron and Merkel will take any steps to counter Russian aggression in northwest Syria.”
Shahbandar said: “Summits have displayed their futility in achieving anything concrete in preventing Russia, Iran and the Assad regime from continuing their campaign of wholescale massacre in Syria.”
He added: “A bilateral US-Turkey understanding on Idlib will probably prove to be the only viable option in preventing disaster at this point.”
Meanwhile, Ankara has urged the US and other NATO members to deploy Patriots along the Turkish border to thwart any attacks from Syrian territory. No decision has yet been made by Washington.
Germany withdrew its Patriots from Turkey five years ago. Spain is currently the only European NATO member with Patriots at Turkey’s southern Incirlik air base, which has been used in the past to support the US-led coalition’s operations against Daesh in Syria.