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Lessons to be learnt from the battle of Idlib

March 11, 2020 at 3:03 pm

A Syrian man carries an injured girl following air strikes carried out by the Syrian regime on 12 July 2019 [Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency]

The crisis in Idlib has undoubtedly been the most serious test for the resilience of Turkey-Russia relations. The military calculus and political dynamics of both sides are highly complicated and multidimensional.

Turkey can’t abandon Idlib province to the far from tender mercies of the Assad regime for two reasons: the potential influx of yet more refugees across the border into Turkish territory, and the revival of Syrian offshoots of the terrorist Kurdish PKK in adjacent territories recently liberated by Turkish forces. From a strategic point of view, the regime considers Idlib to be an impediment on its path towards reclaiming any degree of legitimacy. For Russia, Idlib could serve as a launch pad for rebel attacks into Latakia, which is home to its biggest electronic eavesdropping facility and Khmeimim Air Base, the strategic centre for Moscow’s military operations in Syria and the Middle East.

Despite these apparently conflicting interests, it is definitely wishful thinking to believe that a war might erupt between Turkey and Russia in Syria. There are a group of “black cats”, as the Turkish president labelled them, who are desperate to see this happening, but such powers are always infuriated by any understanding between Ankara and Moscow.

Some of these powers are enunciating their stances overtly while others disingenuously voice their support for Turkey but effectively add fuel to the fire. The record shows that neither the EU nor the US have ever backed Turkey in its escalation against Russia. Furthermore, some Arab monarchies and fiefdoms have reportedly been orchestrating dirty tricks to destabilise Turkey and drag it into major economic and political difficulties. Additionally, although Iran is the third partner of Turkey and Russia in the Sochi agreements, the government in Tehran won’t be relaxed if the other two parties arrive totally on the same page and gradually minimise its own leverage in Syria.

READ: After ceasefire is broken, Turkey warns it will use force in Idlib if ceasefire is voided

For the Russians, Turkey is an indispensable transit hub for the export of Russian gas to Europe via Turk Stream, a gas pipeline crossing the Black Sea from Russia to Turkey. Moreover, diplomatic cooperation between Ankara and Moscow has also materialised in Libya, where the two powers are backing rival parties. Despite this, they’ve been involved dynamically in negotiations over a ceasefire between the warring parties in the North African state.

Militarily, Turkish-Russian ties have also been strengthened. Turkey bought an S-400 missile defence system from Russia, despite the unequivocal opposition of its NATO allies and threats to impose sanctions.

Both Ankara and Moscow are aware of each other’s calculations and they reckon that an easy and imminent compromise in Idlib is unlikely. However, they’ve shown their determination in the field in order to improve their respective hands at the negotiation table. As expected, therefore, the meeting between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin last week resulted in a revival of the ceasefire in the province that paves the way for a second round of peace talks.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) in Moscow, Russia on 27 August 2019 [Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency]

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) in Moscow, Russia on 27 August 2019 [Metin Aktas/Anadolu Agency]

For some, Turkey might have made unacceptable concessions by accepting the status quo that the regime forces have imposed militarily. Assad’s troops have recaptured the strategic M4 and M5 highways, which link respectively the city of Latakia and the capital Damascus to Aleppo. The regime has also succeeded in capturing a huge swathe of Idlib province. On the surface, therefore, the agreement between Erdogan and Putin seems to have formalised the new demarcation and positions of the regime. Nonetheless, on the other side, Turkey has deployed more than 12,000 troops in Idlib since early February and has also set up 12 new outposts in the region within a month. These are added to the other 12 military observation posts which were established under the 2018 Sochi deal.

READ: Erdogan and Putin huffed and puffed, then agreed not to disagree 

Thus, while Idlib’s southern and eastern areas have been recaptured by the regime, the opposition forces and the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) control the other side of the M4 highway and the west of the M5. For Turkey, this would be satisfactory in a sense that it would halt the regime’s brutal bombardment and gives room to embark gradually on setting up the long-awaited safe zone along its border with Idlib.

Turkey’s negotiating strategy with the Russians and the Syrian regime has followed a well-defined trajectory. Firstly, it has shown full respect to previous agreements, including Sochi, which stipulates that, “The Idlib de-escalation area will be preserved and Turkish observation posts will be fortified and continue to function. The Russian Federation will take all necessary measures to ensure that military operations and attacks on Idlib will be avoided and the existing status quo will be maintained.” The Turkish forces have been in Idlib for the past three years and they’ve never started an assault against the regime. It was the latter which killed dozens of Turkish soldiers in one air strike.

The strategy adopted by Turkey vis-à-vis Idlib is to reach a political settlement and avoid the bloody scenarios of the regime and its backers. One shouldn’t pick a fight when talks can do the job. While negotiating with Russia, though, Turkey was moving its soldiers and heavy artillery into Idlib, hoping for peace while planning for war. Turkish drones have played a significant role in revealing this military advance. Compared with the US-led coalition in Syria and Iraq, or the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, casualties among civilians are minimal.

Knowing that the EU won’t side with Turkey unless its own interests are threatened, Ankara used the refugee card swiftly and effectively with the Europeans. Although some would say that the move to open Turkey’s borders to vulnerable refugees can’t be categorised as political pragmatism, but was a moral failure and irresponsible, they seem to forget that those refugees were forced out of their country by the Syrian regime and its backers in Moscow and Tehran. They also seem to disregard the fact that the huge responsibility for the refugees should be shared collectively; Turkey is already host to almost 4 million Syrian refugees, more than any other country in the world.

Turkey’s strategy threw a stone in the stagnant water, causing more than a few ripples. President Erdogan said that the leaders of Germany and France, and probably Britain, will visit Istanbul next week for talks on the latest migration crisis at his country’s border with Europe. Will they display some political pragmatism, or slam the door in Erdogan’s — and the refugees’ — face? It is time for them to accept that they also have a moral responsibility to share the refugee burden.

READ: Ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib comes at a cost for Turkey’s Erdogan

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