ANKARA: Ankara and Moscow are passing through a stormy period in their regional alliance and Monday’s escalation in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province offered a new challenge for their entente: Will they burn bridges or find a common ground to continue their marriage of convenience, at least for a certain time?
The same day when a Russian-backed regime offensive in Idlib killed eight Turkish military officers during the reinforcement of their observation post, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a visit to Ukraine to sign a deal assisting the Ukrainian army with funding.
With a carefully designed and sharpened rhetoric, he raised an anti-Russian nationalist slogan there, “Glory to Ukraine,” referring to the country’s independence fight following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and denounced the Russian annexation of Crimea.
Although the latest bloodshed in Syria was a harsh reminder of Russia’s increasing frustration with Ankara’s precarious moves, the two countries are likely to survive the crisis because they still have unfulfilled regional targets that require each other’s support, experts say.
According to the Sochi agreement, signed by Russia, Turkey and Iran in September 2018, Ankara was supposed to eradicate the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS). Instead, HTS made inroads into strategic areas near Syria’s main highways, M4 and M5, which connect major cities of Syria to Turkey.
“The Russians gave Turkey about one and half year to handle the HTS issue. It wasn’t handled. They gave Turkey about one-and-a-half years to deal with road access. It wasn’t handled. This offensive will reclaim the strategically important M5 and M4 highways for the regime. At that point, Turkey may consolidate and deploy forces closer to the border to absorb refugees. That’s up to Ankara,” Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the US-based Foreign Policy Research Institute, told Arab News, he said.
In the Syrian war, Ankara supports rebel forces against Bashar Assad’s forces which are backed by Moscow.
The two countries also faced a serious crisis five years ago when Turkish military shot down a Russian fighter jet across the border with Syria. That crisis endured for about seven months with a battle of words and deeds between the two countries, impacting trade, tourism and diplomatic ties, even with Russian news site Sputnik’s Turkish section taking a critical editorial line against Erdogan’s policies.
Stein thinks Erdogan will still try and keep Putin on side also “because Ankara owes Moscow a lot of money for the acquisition of a $2 billion Russian S400 air defense system, so the two sides still have lots to talk about.”
With the newly launched TurkStream pipeline, Russia also supplies Turkey with a considerable amount of natural gas by bypassing Ukraine.
Emre Ersen, a Syrian analyst at Marmara University in Istanbul, thinks the reactions in the Russian media are also closely related with the implications of the official visit of President Erdogan to Ukraine and the fact that Turkey’s military-strategic relations with Ukraine have been improving remarkably in the last few years.
“Regarding Idlib, it is clear that the Sochi agreement initiated by Ankara and Moscow in September 2018 is not really working anymore. Whether a new deal is going to be reached on this issue is yet unknown as it seems Russia and the Assad regime are determined to resolve the crisis in Idlib with brute military force in the short term,” he told Arab News.
However for Ersen, Ankara and Moscow still need each other’s support in order to maintain their military influence in Syria.
“Turkey, for instance, needs Russian assistance to protect its strategic gains in the east of Euphrates River. Russia, on the other hand, would probably not want to greatly alienate Turkey which might trigger a new rapprochement between Ankara and Washington as also indicated by what US Secretary of State Pompeo said about the latest incident,” he noted.
On Wednesday, Erdogan criticized Russia for failing to implement peace agreements and called for Moscow to “better understand Turkey’s sensitivities in Syria.” Erdogan also repeated that Russia is not Turkey’s interlocutor in Russia. “It’s entirely the regime and you should not block us,” he said.