ANKARA: The brinkmanship of Ankara and the Assad regime over Syria’s rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib has reached a new level with another military operation on the horizon.
After day-long negotiations between the Turkish and Russian delegations failed to achieve a result, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that an Idlib operation was “imminent.”
“We are counting down; we are making our final warnings. We can suddenly show up overnight. It is a matter of timing,” Erdogan said on Wednesday during his address to the parliamentary group. He added that negotiations with Russia would continue despite the huge differences between the two countries.
Ankara disagreed with Moscow over the latter’s latest offer for the relocation of Turkish troops in Idlib province.
Erdogan announced his determination to launch a cross-border operation by the end of the month if Damascus does not withdraw behind Turkish military positions. It has also reinforced its positions in Idlib over the past weeks by deploying elite troops, armored vehicles and tanks with buildups encircling Idlib city by 6 km.
As a staunch ally of Syria’s Bashar Assad regime throughout the civil war, Russia’s reaction has been swift, saying any Turkish offensive in Idlib would be the most negative outcome.
“If we are talking about an operation against the legitimate authorities of the Syrian Republic and armed forces of the Syrian republic this would, of course, be the worst scenario,” said Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov.
Erdogan hit back at the Kremlin’s statement, saying that “attacking the Turkish military would be the worst scenario.”
Erdogan recently called on regime troops to withdraw from areas determined in the Sochi agreement.
A new round of talks is expected to be held next week in Ankara between the Turkish and Russian delegations.
Ankara’s moves in Syria have mostly been unpredictable, and experts warn about the dangers that such an operation might carry.
For Oytun Orhan, coordinator of Syria studies at the Ankara-based think tank ORSAM, any military operation in Idlib is too risky and there could be several side effects.
“However, it appears that Turkish authorities insist on the necessity of this operation, regardless of all the risks it carries, because they think that not conducting the operation would be much more costly for them,” he told Arab News.
According to Orhan, as long as Russia did not offer Turkey a workable and acceptable plan for Idlib, Turkey would be left with no option but a military one.
However, Russia holds the key to Idlib’s fate as it has the aerial advantage.
“The lack of aerial support restricts the opportunities Turkish ground forces have,” Orhan said. “The recent use of sophisticated surface-to-air missiles to shoot down regime helicopters means that Turkey wants to prevent regime troops from using the airspace fully.”
Experts also underline that any increase in the scale of fighting in Idlib may engage the US more actively, especially in providing Turkey with intelligence and technical support.
“The fragile position of Turkish observation points in Idlib, most of them encircled by regime forces, is another dynamic to consider. If the crisis escalates, the Russian regime may encourage attacks against Turkish soldiers being deployed there, which will lead to further escalation in return where nobody would win,” Orhan said.
The continuous clashes in Idlib between regime forces and rebels have rendered several Turkish observation points very fragile, with some categorized as at high risk as they have been surrounded by forces loyal to the Assad regime.
Erdogan has made it clear that if security concerns are not met, Turkey will resort to solving its problems unilaterally in Syria.
But, Aydin Sezer, an Ankara-based expert on Turkey-Russia relations, thinks that Erdogan’s latest statement is mostly intended for domestic consumption, and the quick reaction from the Kremlin shows that Russia wants to keep the diplomatic option open to resolve the crisis.
“Erdogan just wanted to show his determination on the Idlib issue in order to play his negotiation cards ahead of a new round of talks with the Russians next week. I don’t expect him to resort to the military option quickly,” he told Arab News.
Timur Akhmetov, a researcher at the Russian International Affairs Council, does not think that Turkey will risk its relations with Russia because both need each other to pursue their interests in Syria.
“Turkey’s demands are categorical and Russia has been trying to offer Turkey something. Russia has been paying attention to Turkey’s concerns; Ankara was not ignored and was given the opportunity to deliver its messages,” he told Arab News.
According to Akhmetov, the solution may be reached during a Erdogan-Putin meeting that should take place after high-level officials have clarified their positions.
“A move to go against Russian warnings may cost Turkey more than it could gain through cooperation and dialogue,” he said.