Turkey, Syria look to Putin to avoid further Idlib clashes
The shaky Turkish-Russian alliance is facing its toughest challenge yet over the fate of Idlib province, the last bastion of the anti-Assad rebels. In fact, the 2018 Sochi agreement between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin to create a demilitarized zone in most of Idlib is now over, as Ankara has dispatched hundreds of armored vehicles and more than 6,000 troops into the besieged province to stop the advance of Syrian government forces.
On Monday, Turkey announced it had struck more than 100 Syrian government targets, “neutralizing” at least 100 soldiers, in retaliation for the deaths of six Turkish soldiers as a result of regime bombing. Amid conflicting reports, the regime is said to have succeeded in controlling a strategic highway linking Aleppo to Damascus. The direct clash between Turkey and Syria was the first of its kind since 2011.
A Russian military delegation failed to reach a new understanding with Turkey in a meeting in the Turkish capital this week. Erdogan and Putin are set to meet soon in a bid to resolve their differences. The Turkish president said last week that Russia had failed to abide by the Sochi and Astana agreements. He declared the Astana process, which also involves Iran, to be “moribund.”
The latest Syrian offensive, which began last December, has forced more than half a million civilians to flee toward the Turkish border. Many have been killed as a result of Russian airstrikes that targeted schools and hospitals, according to international aid groups working in the area.
For Russia, it is Turkey that has failed to meet its commitment to separate so-called moderate rebel fighters from terrorist groups — namely Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, formerly Al-Nusra Front, which has an estimated 30,000 fighters in the province. Ankara, on the other hand, sees the latest offensive as a breach of the Sochi agreement that created a buffer zone in Idlib. For the regime, the liberation of Idlib would mean the end of the nine-year uprising and a resounding victory for President Bashar Assad.
Damascus sees the Turkish presence on its territory as an occupation, while Ankara claims that the 1998 Adana agreement gives it the right to protect its national security against threats posed by Kurdish groups in Syria. It has carried out a number of operations to control vast swaths of northern Syrian territory, the last of which was aimed at pushing the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) out of its positions to the east of the Euphrates. Russia was able to convince Turkey to run joint patrols along the Turkish border to ensure that YPG fighters do not pose a threat.
Erdogan seems to be ready to raise the ante again, even at the expense of his alliance with Putin
But now Erdogan seems to be ready to raise the ante again, even at the expense of his alliance with Putin. For him, the loss of Idlib presents a number of challenges. Turkey will not open its borders for a new influx of refugees, while its presence in Idlib is a major card that Erdogan was hoping to use in the discussions on a final political settlement in Syria. But his main concern remains the perceived threat posed by the Syrian Kurds. While the US has withdrawn from northeastern Syria, it continues to maintain a military presence in mostly Kurdish areas in the east.
The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces, which comprises Kurdish, Arab and other ethnic groups in north and east Syria, is currently negotiating with Damascus through Russian mediation in the hope of reaching an agreement on the future of territories under its control. A decentralized and autonomous entity under the SDC would be viewed as a threat by Turkey.
Ankara’s plans to change the demographic structure of areas along its border with Syria have not worked. Erdogan’s ambitions to have his military deployed deep into Syrian territory have been checked by the Russians. Now his troops are involved in direct clashes with the Syrian government army in Idlib. But a last-minute summit with Putin could save the day — for now. Russian and Turkish interests in Idlib are difficult, if not impossible, to reconcile. Putin will try again to restart secret talks between Ankara and Damascus. A first of its kind meeting since 2011 reportedly took place between Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and his Syrian counterpart Ali Mamlouk in Moscow last month. A tentative cease-fire agreement in Idlib was reached but was short-lived.
The latest Turkish deployment may end in a stalemate on the ground. Neither Putin nor Erdogan would want to see their alliance collapse. A period of delicate diplomatic negotiations will begin soon in a bid to find a way out. Turkey wants assurances and a say with regard to the future of the Syrian Kurdish regions. For Syria, an end to the Turkish military presence and support of rebel groups are top priority. The chances are that Putin will make a breakthrough that satisfies both sides, avoiding any further direct military clashes in Idlib.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010