Turkey-Russia: Is the marriage of convenience in Idlib over?

Turkey-Russia: Is the marriage  of convenience in Idlib over?
A convoy of trucks transporting Syrians and their belongings drives through the village of Al-Mastuma, in the northern countryside of Idlib province on Thursday, as thousands of people flee Idlib. (AFP)
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Updated 31 January 2020

Turkey-Russia: Is the marriage of convenience in Idlib over?

Turkey-Russia: Is the marriage  of convenience in Idlib over?
  • As of now, Moscow is loyal to neither the Astana nor the Sochi accords, says Turkish president

ANKARA: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s sharp criticism of Russia over its handling of the Syria crisis has sparked debate about whether their alliance of convenience is over.

On his way back from his African diplomatic tour, Erdogan told reporters: “As of now, Russia is loyal to neither the Astana nor the Sochi accords,” adding that his “patience is running out” over the bombardment of rebels in Idlib province.

These two agreements co-sponsored by Moscow and Ankara almost three years ago aimed to de-escalate the fighting in rebel-held northwestern province of Syria and to prevent any assault from the regime forces to the region. Turkey set up observation posts to monitor them under a demilitarized zone. Turkey and Russia also struck a cease-fire earlier in January for Syria.

“If we are trustworthy partners, Russia has to make its position clear,” Erdogan said. “Either it will opt for a different process with Syria, or with Turkey. There’s no other option. We are running out patience.”

The furious statements were in response to reports that Syrian regime troops, backed by Russia, have taken control of Maarat Al-Numan, which has been a major opposition bastion in Idlib province for the past eight years. The capture of the town resulted in heavy clashes with Turkey-backed rebel groups.

Turkey’s Defense Ministry issued a statement on Tuesday that it would retaliate “in the strongest way” against “any move to jeopardize the security” of Turkish observation posts in Idlib, as at least three of them are in close proximity to regime forces. The escalation of fighting in the region triggered a major exodus of civilians heading for Turkish border.

However, the Russian Foreign Ministry reiterated its commitments to implement its obligations on Syria: “Idlib is a very complex and difficult case. Both sides have reasons to complain about the ability or willingness of the other side to live up to its commitments,” said Andrey Kortunov, director general of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC). He said this dispute was not lethal for the relationship.

“Russia and Turkey always had diverging views on many issues. But I do not think that the Astana process is dead — it is too valuable for both sides to let it go down the drain,” he said.

Russia and Turkey began supporting opposite sides in another war-torn country, Libya, recently. Russian-backed mercenaries are thought to be fighting alongside Libyan National Army leader Gen. Khalifa Haftar, while Turkey has been allegedly deploying thousands of Syrian fighters and Turkish advisers in Tripoli to support the Government of National Accord, regardless of UN’s call for respecting the arms embargo on Libya.

Navvar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, thinks that Astana process is suffering, but it is not dead yet. “Turkish government has to say something about what is going on in Idlib and how the Russia-backed regime forces are advancing so fast. Everybody, including the Turkish opposition, is asking why and how these attacks could have happened,” he told Arab News.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a Turkish military convoy of 30 vehicles entered Syria on Jan. 27 to establish a new observation post in the Idlib town of Saraqeb.

Samuel Ramani, a Middle East analyst at the University of Oxford, thinks Idlib is a serious area of disagreement between Turkey and Russia.

“It’s rare to see Erdogan make such a critical statement in the post-2016 environment of improved Russia-Turkey relations,” he said.

He says it is still hard to see how Turkey defends its interests in Idlib now.

“Syrian rebels have lost the critical M5 highway, and Assad’s advance since the breakdown of the latest cease-fire has been unprecedentedly swift. Since Jan. 15, the strategic balance has changed considerably with Damascus being the sole beneficiary,” he said, and added: “Turkey’s main priority now is to contain the fallout. 110,000 Syrian refugees are crowding the Turkish borders and rates of internal displacement are spiraling out of control, even by the horrific standards of the Syrian civil war.”