When a ceasefire was negotiated in September last year between Russia and Turkey for the purpose of setting up a buffer zone in Idlib province – the last opposition-held stronghold in Syria – there was little doubt that an assault on the area and attempts by the regime to retake it would be inevitable. The UN Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, Mark Lowcock, predicted at the time that “a massive military onslaught on Idlib would create the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century.”
Since the beginning of May, this prophecy has been playing out as a result of Syrian and Russian forces bombarding the province, destroying at least 18 hospitals and clinics and causing 49 health centres to shut down. Seventeen schools have been levelled by the air strikes. There is a population of three million crammed into the province, double the amount of its pre-war population and which primarily consists of displaced Syrians, of whom at least 150,000 have been forced to flee further north towards the Turkish border.
The full-on assault on this one corner of Syria has had and will have, many potential effects, but the most pressing of them is the fact that Russia has effectively allowed the ceasefire to be broken and for the plans to make Idlib a de-escalation zone to be discarded. This came days after Russian President Vladimir Putin assured that his country and Syria were not planning an assault on the territory.
Turkey, meanwhile, has been unusually quiet, leading some to speculate that it has made a deal with Russia to trade parts of southern Idlib for Tal Rifaat – a Kurdish-held area to the north-east. If such a claim were true, then that would be detrimental to Turkey’s relationship with the Syrian opposition and its stance in the conflict, as it would effectively be selling out groups it has a soft relationship with such as Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) and its overall guarantee of protection over Idlib.
To counter this claim, Turkey has resorted – albeit quietly – to measured diplomatic attempts to halt the assault on Idlib, with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu contacting his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov, in order to save the ceasefire agreement.
An all-out assault on Idlib is far from being in Turkey’s interests; Ankara signed an agreement with the EU in 2015 to stem the flow of refugees from its borders in to Europe, the displacement of a further three million Syrians will be disastrous to that aim.
On the other hand, Turkey’s attention has again shifted to the Kurdish militias holding towns and areas in the north of Syria. In 2018, its invasion of Afrin during “Operation Olive Branch” was conducted to clear the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) from the Turkish-Syrian border to prevent the possibility of the formation of an independent Kurdish state in the area. Since Afrin, Turkey’s sights have been on Tal Rifaat as the next major locality standing between it and Aleppo. In March Turkish troops helped liberate the town after the locals called for Ankara’s support against the Kurds. The town has, however, remained the subject of YPG raids.
In Idlib, Turkey sent its affiliated Syrian opposition fighters to reinforce the frontlines. While President Recep Tayyip Erdogan condemned the Assad regime for attempting to “sabotage” Turkish-Russian relations by starting the assault.
It is Turkey’s actions in this regard which make its diplomatic strategy in Syria fit into its broader geopolitical overtures towards Russia, especially considering the tense relationship that Turkey has had with the US and NATO over the past few years of the Syrian conflict. In 2017, US President Donald Trump formed his own Syria strategy by declaring his arming of the Kurdish militias in the fight against Daesh. This, of course, alarmed Turkey which saw it as a direct threat to the stability of its borders and its own domestic issues with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). As it proceeded with its military campaign against the Kurds and its diplomatic campaign against the US’ alliance with them, Trump hardened his stance towards Turkey by launching an “economic war” on the country and crippling its currency in the summer of 2018.
This has inevitably pushed Turkey to deal with Russia, which has offered the purchase of its S-400 missile defence system, going against the standards set by NATO and the US’ deal to supply Turkey with its own F-35 fighter jets. This has resulted in a fresh and ongoing diplomatic spat between the two sides, which has – once again – driven Turkey further into the arms of Russia.
Though Russia and Turkey stand on different sides of the Syria conflict, for Ankara an ally that supports Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is dearer than one that supports the Kurds it has been fighting for decades.
However, it is also in Turkey’s best interests to maintain the ceasefire in Idlib and ensure the living conditions of Syrians there; avoiding the exodus of approximately three million refugees and their arrival on to its soil.
To this end, President Erdogan has taken the necessary measures to ease the way for a new ceasefire and has openly condemned Al-Assad – but not Russia.
While the province of Idlib and the continued support for the opposition there remains one priority for Turkey, its campaign against the YPG in Tal Rifaat is, in its perspective, more pressing, meaning it will continue to fight on both fronts but will do so in Idlib only through its proxies and diplomacy. While diplomatically sound, this is overall a very weak stance from Erdogan, and despite support from the locals in Tal Rifaat, Turkey’s popularity has already decreased in Idlib.
This is particularly true amongst the further displaced Syrians – approximately 180,000 – driven from southern Idlib towards the Turkish border throughout the past few days: for them, Turkey has been their only hope of safety from the assault, and with Erdogan’s weak stance and closed border, a feeling of discontent and betrayal from Turkey now runs deep among them.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.