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The battle for Idlib will make or break Russia’s relations with Turkey

February 18, 2020 at 2:14 pm

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) speaks with President of Russia Vladimir Putin (L) within the Berlin Conference on Libyan peace in Berlin, Germany on January 19, 2020. [Turkish Presidency/Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Anadolu Agency]

Since the outset of the Syrian revolution in 2011, Russia has been the staunchest backer of the Assad regime in Damascus. Turkey, meanwhile, has maintained its position as the closest friend and supporter of the rebel groups in Syria. Ironically, both countries have succeeded in maintaining their friendship, regardless of their divergent standpoints vis-à-vis the Syrian conflict.

Recently, Moscow and Ankara have been at loggerheads once again. In the wake of the killing of Turkish soldiers in Syria’s north-west province of Idlib, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said, “Either Russia reins-in the regime’s bombings in Idlib or our patience is running out and we will do what is necessary from now on.”

Ankara said that it will use military power to drive back the Syrian forces unless they withdraw by the end of February. Erdogan added that Turkey will strike government forces anywhere in Syria if another Turkish soldier is hurt.

On 29 January, the Turkish leader slammed Russia for the first time, accusing its leadership of “not being sincere to the Astana and Sochi agreements.” More interestingly, when he was asked about the Astana talks, he replied, “There is no Astana process any more.”

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In 2017, both countries embarked on diplomatic efforts to settle the conflict through a series of peace talks in Astana and Sochi that led to the de-escalation agreement for Idlib. However, the developments on the battlefield have turned the de-escalation zones into places of brutally escalating standoffs.

Once again, Turkey is disappointed with its allies in NATO. They’ve shown a distinct lack of responsibility and care towards Turkey’s national security, leaving the country to tackle the refugee crisis and the threat of domestic and foreign terrorist organisations by itself. All of this has played Turkey out of the NATO orbit and into the arms of Russia. The S-400 missile defence system deal, energy agreements and important agriculture and tourism links with Russia have made Ankara more in need of Moscow than the other way around. Bilateral relations have seen lots of ups and downs.

In November 2015, the Turkish air force downed a Russian warplane. The two pilots who shot down the Russian bomber were arrested in the wake of the 2016 failed military coup in Turkey. Ankara accused them of deliberately attempting to spoil relations between Turkey and Russia. Nonetheless, the incident cast a dark shadow on relations for some time.

Ostensibly, Turkey and Russia have common interests on many levels. Among these is the missile defence system that has been partially delivered to Turkey, despite NATO’s vehement disagreement and Washington’s threat of sanctions. Economically, both countries have huge trade agreements, including the Black Sea gas pipeline.

In the aftermath of the recent killing of Turkish soldiers in Idlib, both parties traded accusations. Operationally, the Turkish officials argue that Moscow hasn’t put the necessary pressure on the Assad regime to stop its forces from attacking Turkey’s military observation posts. Russia, however, says that the Turkish army has failed to warn their Russian counterparts about possible troop movements in good time.

Politically, Moscow claims that Ankara has failed to separate the moderate rebel groups in Idlib from groups formerly linked to Al-Qaeda. This is precisely the rhetoric that Damascus uses. Thus, it’s quite obvious that the Russians sees the latest escalation through regime eyes, and both are against Turkey. Ankara, meanwhile, argues that the Russians and the Syrian regime have obstructed the political efforts of the Astana constitutional committee working on settling a political transition in Syria.

On the ground, 13 Turkish soldiers were killed in Idlib by shelling from the Syrian regime forces. Syrian troops have charged along the Damascus-Aleppo highway and also captured Ma’arat al-Nu’man, the second-largest city in Idlib province.

By early February, government forces had reached an important crossroads in the city of Saraqib, where Turkey is constructing refugee camps with financial support from Germany. Syrian regime forces are now surrounding the Turkish troops, prompting Erdogan to insist that, “Turkey cannot remain silent while the Syrian regime forces surround our observation points in north-west Idlib.”

READ: NATO has no plans to support Turkey in Syria

Turkey has a tiny space to manoeuvre. It doesn’t have the appetite to be dragged into an all-out war with the Syrian regime, which has the support of the Russian air force. Without a mutual agreement between Moscow and Ankara, it would be difficult for the Turks to neutralise that threat.

Moreover, Turkey reckons that Russia is not interested in an extended conflict between the two in Syria. If the Russians antagonise the Turks there, the latter would head straight to the NATO camp, something that definitely won’t please Russia. Moscow clearly doesn’t want the contentious Turkish-US relations to be revived. A recalibration in that bilateral relationship would be translated into a united front against Russian domination in the Middle East, an option that is still on the table for US decision makers.

Undeniably, there is considerable resentment in Ankara over Moscow’s unequivocal support for Damascus after the killing of Turkish soldiers. Nevertheless, before beating the drums of war, bilateral shuttle diplomacy will continue to work towards a solution to the latest deadlock.

Despite the enormous interests between Turkey and Russia, the Russian leadership tends to continue backing the Syrian regime. In light of this consistent Russian paradigm that is not likely to shift, at least not in the short term, the only route that both Russia and Turkey might take is the rejuvenation of the Astana peace talks.

By doing so, Turkey would be able to impose a ceasefire and prevent the influx of refugees across its borders. With the ongoing deployment of military hardware in Idlib province, Turkey is sending a clear message to Damascus and the Russians, “If you want peace, prepare for war” (“Si vis pacem, para bellum”). This explains why the Kremlin hasn’t ruled out the possibility that President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan will meet in person in the near future for the specific purpose of discussing potential solutions for the conflict in Idlib.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.