ANKARA: Russia has reportedly insisted that Turkey reopen three crossings in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province and Aleppo starting from Thursday, amid the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the country.
Turkey denies that any deal has been struck with Russia in relation to the crossing points between opposition- and regime-held areas, despite Moscow’s claims to the contrary.
Earlier on Tuesday, Ankara conveyed to the Russian envoy its concerns over a recent escalation of violence in northwest Syria following attacks by Russian jets near the Turkish border and in Idlib province, which targeted commercial activities and infrastructure — including a hospital — in opposition-held areas.
The ongoing humanitarian crisis in the northwest of Syria is affecting around 4.5 million civilians, with lines of trucks carrying basic supplies and construction equipment waiting to cross from Turkey into the Syrian territories. As of last month, at least 12.4 million Syrians out of about 16 million were considered food insecure, according to the World Food Programme (WFP) — an alarming increase of 3.1 million over the past year.
Turkey and Russia back rival parties in the Syrian civil war. They reached a ceasefire agreement last March to halt a Russian-backed regime offensive in Idlib. However, that ceasefire has been violated several times and a number of civilian facilities, including hospitals and schools, have been bombed, pushing civilians to flee their homes.
Observers note that the Russians could turn the reopening of these crossings into a political bargaining chip; coordination of international aid would be one way for Russia to try to force the international community to deal with the Assad regime.
Navvar Saban, a military analyst from the Istanbul-based Omran Center for Strategic Studies, warned: “If they are reopened right now, the Russians will push for all the international aid to be channeled through Damascus airport, rather than (via) the gates that are recognized by the international community.”
The UN has been sending humanitarian aid to Syria’s northwestern region since 2014 via four gates in Jordan, Iraq and Turkey. However, since last July, only one — Bab Al-Hawa, via Turkey — has stayed open, with Russia using its veto power at the UN Security Council to cut off international cross-border aid.
Levent Kemal, a Middle East political commentator, agrees with Saban. “This plan, if it happens, is actually the beginning of a Russian move to stop all cross-border humanitarian aid,” he told Arab News. “Russia will first open these crossing points to allow the passage of commercial goods and humanitarian aid. Then, it will channel all the international aid to the regime-held areas.”
Aydin Sezer, an expert on Turkey-Russia relations, thinks Russia’s move also has a psychological dimension.
“Leaving a region that was under Turkish control, civilians will be taking shelter in the regime-controlled areas after the opening of these crossings, as they are mostly worried about the presence of militants in their region — with all the security challenges they pose to daily life,” Sezer told Arab News.
If that were to happen, he added, Turkey would no longer be able to use the presence of civilians as a pretext for discouraging Russian airstrikes against Idlib — a tactic Ankara has favored so far.
Idlib is home to around 4 million Syrians as well as armed rebels. Turkey’s major concern was that any Russian-backed regime offensive in Idlib would result in huge numbers of refugees attempting to cross into Turkey.
On Thursday evening, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergey Shoigu to discuss Idlib. Akar announced that they had agreed to maintain the ceasefire.
“There is a ceasefire which needs to hold. Accordingly, a road to peace and stability should also be opened,” he said, adding that Turkey has killed more than 200 terrorists in northern Syria since March 1.