Will Turkey find its way in the complicated Idlib chessboard?

Will Turkey find its way in the complicated Idlib chessboard?

Will Turkey find its way in the complicated Idlib chessboard?
Smoke billows following a reported air strike on the village of Maaret Al-Naasan in Syria's northern Idlib on February 16, 2020. (AFP)
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When a Turkish Army detachment came under attack by Russia-supported Syrian forces and lost eight soldiers, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that such attacks will not avoid retaliation. In the subsequent days, Turkey has sent reinforcements of some 9,000 soldiers and heavy equipment to Idlib.

On Feb. 11, Piotr Ilyichev, the head of the International Organizations Department of the Russian Foreign Ministry, made a statement to the UN Diplomatic Academy: “We understand the difficulties encountered by our Turkish partners. But the Syrian units, Russian units and Russia’s Hmeimim military base are targeted every day by drones. We cannot simply sit and wait while these attacks are carried out.”

Alexei Yerhov, the Russian Ambassador in Ankara, said: “The Syrian Army decided to take back every inch of its territory. It is fighting in its own country for its own people. They are fighting for their ancestral lands and not according to the rules dictated by some bearded foreigners. Through the Sochi agreement of Sept. 17, 2018, Turkey assumed the responsibility to eliminate all radical terrorist groups, tanks, rocket launchers, artillery systems and all heavy weapons.  There was also an agreement to open the M-5 and M-4 motorways. Were the terrorists eliminated? Were the motorways opened?”

An ambassador cannot be expected to make this type of statement without strong backing from his government, especially under strict Russian diplomatic practices.

This background is a clear indication that Russia is not at ease with Turkey’s Idlib policy.

The Astana memorandum on deconfliction specified that certain categories of armed opposition were going to be kept outside the scope of ceasefire agreement. These armed opposition factions were: “Members of Daesh, Al-Nusra Front and other groups associated with Al-Qaeda, which would include Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham.”

These names were copied from the UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Therefore, Turkey has a double obligation: One stemming from resolution 2254; the other from the commitment that it undertook in the Astana process.

Turkey either misunderstood this exception or took on the responsibility of Idlib because it had its own designs for the province.

Now, everything is unfolding as predicted by experts on the Middle East: The Syrian Army’s operations are raging intensively, the refugee movement toward the Turkish borders continues unabated and innocent Syrian civilians are faced with untold plight.

Turkey may have failed to see where things went wrong. The original mistake was when it expected the Syrian government to spare the armed opposition amassed in Idlib.

Yasar Yakis

To further complicate the situation, the US has stepped in. James Jeffrey, its special representative for Syria, issued a statement after he held talks with Turkey’s presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, saying: “We have martyrs. I present my condolences to the Turkish nation. Today our ally Turkey’s soldiers are faced with threats and these threats come from Russia and from Assad’s government.”

This statement is in stark contrast with Washington’s budget allocation for the Syrian Democratic Forces, Turkey’s archenemy. The Russian Embassy in Ankara did not miss the opportunity and put on its website TV footage prepared by Turkey’s semi-official Anatolia News Agency, adding: “We leave it up to your judgement.”

Turkey may have failed to see where things went wrong. The original mistake was when it expected the Syrian government to spare the armed opposition amassed in Idlib. Apart from this, its Idlib policy also contradicts its oft-repeated commitment of support for Syrian sovereignty,

Turkey now seems set to change the rules of the game by deciding to upgrade its military presence in Idlib in order to gain a bargaining position. Whether the recent reinforcements would lead to military clashes cannot be predicted, because it is unlikely for Turkey to clash with Syrian forces without Russia’s acquiescence.

Erdogan may expect that Moscow would not like to antagonize Turkey, especially now that the US has suddenly started to support Turkey’s operations in Idlib. He must also be aware of inconsistencies in Washington’s attitude.

Russian President Vladimir Putin would not like to withdraw his support for Damascus, nor would he like to end his cooperation with Erdogan, because he covered a long distance in driving a wedge in NATO solidarity by bringing Turkey close to Russia. He would not like to spoil the efforts that he has carefully conducted so far.

Moscow may maintain its silence and decline to intervene, because the military balance in Idlib is in Assad’s favor anyhow.

Let us hope that Turkey will be able to find its way out on this complicated Idlib chessboard.

• Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and a founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar

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