Idlib exposes limits of Russia and Turkey’s strategic partnership

This year, 2020, has proven to be especially nightmarish for Idlib. Within the past four months, roughly one million Syrians have been displaced by the Russian-backed regime offensive. Like many countries worldwide, Syria is also reporting cases of COVID-19 (a.k.a. coronavirus), a terrifying pandemic that threatens to further exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Idlib.

On March 5, following weeks of clashes in Idlib between Turkey’s military on one side and the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) along with various militias loyal to Bashar al-Assad on the other, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin reached a deal. As a result of “Sochi 2.0,” there has been a halt for now to the bloodshed in Idlib, which serves Ankara’s interests in terms of preventing a new major influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey.

Moscow realized that Erdogan was cornered into action by the widespread opposition among Turkey’s public opinion to an influx of more Syrian refugees; this is underscored by the increasing popularity of nationalist parties inside Turkey and by the fact that Ankara is now actively encouraging refugees already inside Turkey to move towards the EU. Arguably, Ankara was ready to steamroll Assad out of Idlib and even clash with Russian forces, if that proved necessary.

During the Putin-Erdogan summit in Moscow, the two leaders agreed on a military ceasefire, the establishment of a jointly patrolled secure corridor along the key M4 highway and to facilitate the return of civilians who fled the latest Russia-backed SAA offensive in Syria’s Idlib.

Despite the ceasefire, the picture is not entirely rosy for Ankara. It is not clear where Turkey is headed in terms of its relationship with the regime in Damascus. A growing number of Erdogan’s supporters were recently calling for Assad’s ouster, while prominent members of the Turkish opposition urge Ankara to engage the Syrian government diplomatically.

Officials in Ankara, however, are forced to accept certain realities about Idlib and Syria which are painful for many Turks. Under “Sochi 2.0”, the SAA’s military gains are further consolidated, underscoring how Ankara must deal with the Syrian government. At this juncture, the $64,000 question is whether or not the agreed-upon cease-fire will last. Previous ceasefires in other parts of Syria brokered by Russia and Turkey did not hold pro-Assad forces for long, and the Idlib agreement is already tottering due to ongoing sporadic clashes between the SAA and Ankara-backed rebels.

From the Turkish perspective, there are grave concerns that if “Sochi 2.0” falls apart and fighting resumes, Turkey will appear in a weaker position given the extent to which the deal has enabled the Syrian regime to consolidate its control of territory in north-western Syria.

Clearly, the deal which Erdogan and Putin arrived at earlier this month does not provide a political solution to the crisis in Idlib. Although “Sochi 2.0” has served its purpose in terms of pausing the bloodshed, the fact of the matter is that Ankara and Moscow view the province, where the “final battle” of Syria’s civil war has been taking place for years, in fundamentally different ways.

As Russia sees it, the Assad regime is Syria’s sole UN-recognized government with legitimate authority in the country. Thus any forces fighting to topple Assad which refuse to enter into negotiations are “terrorists.” Assad’s offensive in Idlib has therefore been within the Syrian state’s right as a matter countering terrorism. In agreement with Damascus, Russia continues to consider Idlib as the sanctuary of terrorists and rebels that threaten the rest of Syria. In making the case that Idlib is a hotbed for global terrorists, Russians are quick to observe that the U.S. military killed the former leader of Islamic State (ISIS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, in the province last year.

The Turkish perspective, on the other hand, is vastly different. Ankara views the prospects for a large new exodus of refugees towards its borders as unacceptable, yet inevitable if the SAA keeps pursuing its goal of recapturing every inch of Idlib. Moreover, Turkey continues to view Assad’s government as illegitimate and believes that some of the actors in northern Syria deserve greater support from the international community and rejects the classification of all these groups as terrorists.

Regardless of how developments in Idlib unfold, it is clear that the status quo cannot be sustained. Doubtless, the Kremlin finds itself dealing with a major dilemma vis-à-vis Idlib at a time when Russia seeks to expand its role in the Middle East. For Moscow, preventing a full-scale Turkish-Syrian war over northwestern Syria is a high priority. Moreover, Russia would like to use its leverage to put greater pressure on Turkey to make peace with Assad’s government.

As Moscow continues trying to push Ankara toward a more Russia-friendly approach to dealing with Assad and the crisis in Idlib, there are some critical issues where the Russian and Turkish governments lack a common understanding. Such matters could lead to a new rise in tensions in Ankara-Moscow relations depending on how the two sides address them.

The first issue is how to ensure that the most radical groups among Idlib’s rebels, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and the Iranian-backed militias fighting on Assad’s side, abide by the ceasefire. While Russia expects Turkey to use the ceasefire as an opportunity to rein in Idlib’s radical groups, Ankara seeks Moscow’s cooperation in deterring SAA provocations. Worryingly, there is no sign — at least not yet — that Turkey or Russia are preparing to address each other’s concerns on this. Although Turkey’s government designated HTS a terrorist group in August 2018, experts such as Fehim Tastekin argue that officials in Ankara were reluctant to “to treat the jihadi factions it has backed, and allowed to use its borders, as terrorist groups.”

Further complicating these dynamics is the fact that Turkish soldiers are now a target for both pro-Assad forces and militant Sunni jihadists. The recent killing of two Turkish troops in the province, presumably at the hands of HTS, underscored at least one price that Ankara pays for its decision to agree to “Sochi 2.0,” which made Turkey more vulnerable to the same extremist forces that Russia been demanding Ankara suppress. A key question is if such deadly acts of violence directed against Turkish personnel in Idlib will prompt Ankara to fight against radical Sunni jihadist groups, which could possibly ease tensions in Russian-Turkish relations. Yet scholars such as Gonul Tol have previously maintained that Turkey’s capacity to do so is “questionable at best.”

Another major issue is the fate of those observation posts manned by Ankara’s troops in northwest Syria that are now surrounded by Syrian government forces as a result of the SAA offensive on Idlib. An attack on Turkish observation posts is likely to trigger a forceful response from Ankara and a wider escalation.

Lastly, as Russia seeks to exert more pressure on Turkey, Moscow and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-linked People’s Protection Units (YPG) appear to be moving closer. Although relations between Russia and the YPG are not new, this month the Kremlin has been keen to take advantage of the YPG’s loss of trust in its main superpower ally, the United States. In all probability, Russia’s aim in improving relations with the YPG is to give itself greater bargaining power when it comes to talks with Turkey about the future of Syria.

The battle for Idlib underscores Russia’s increasing dilemma on how to deal with Turkey as Moscow becomes increasingly active on key MENA dossiers in which Ankara has high stakes. Despite the temptation by Moscow to increase its engagement with Turkey in order to add to growing intra-NATO tensions, Moscow and Ankara’s respective MENA region agendas appear to be on an inevitable collision course.

The budding Russian-Turkish rivalry is also playing out in Libya. While Turkey has stepped up support for the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord, the Kremlin has encouraged private Russian military companies to join forces with the Libyan National Army led by General Khalifa Haftar. In addition, Russia is flirting and coordinating with influential regional countries, such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), that openly oppose Ankara’s foreign policy. For instance, the director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, Sergey Naryshkin, visited the UAE—the country accused by Erdogan of having a hand in the 2016 coup attempt against him—as recently as February 12.

It is clear that Russia is asserting itself into the Middle East more forcefully than at any time since the collapse of the Soviet Union. As it does so, Moscow is exploiting geopolitical and ideological rivalries to enhance its position in the tumultuous region while filling the vacuum created by declining U.S. influence.

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