The Idlib Knot – A Test For The Putin-Erdogan Relations

by Vencislav Bozhev

Just within a week, the Turkish army lost 13 soldiers in clashes with troops loyal to President Bashar Assad in Idlib governorate. Five of them died after their base near Taftanaz was targeted, and a week earlier another eight were killed after shelling by Syrian government forces in the area of the strategically located city of Saraqib. Ankara’s response was quick, as Turkish artillery hit over 100 targets of the Syrian army and its allies. This is the result from Turkey’s decision to start pouring large amounts of military hardware and soldiers in a bid to deter the government offensive against the various insurgent groups in Idlib.

And while Russia is trying to play the role of a mediator, there are still no indications that the situation is going to deescalate. Ankara and Damascus blame each other, with both sides showing readiness to continue hostilities after the end of February, when expires the Turkish ultimatum, warning for further military action if the Syrian government does not withdraw.

FAILURE OF THE SOCHI AGREEMENT

In the fall of 2018, Presidents Erdogan and Putin both reached an agreement, which at that moment satisfied their needs and ensured at least temporary stability in the Idlib, Aleppo and Hama provinces. The main points were as follows:

  • establishing a 15-20 km. demilitarized zone to separate the government troops from the different rebel and Islamist groups;
  • withdrawal of all radical terrorist militias such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) along with all types of heavy equipment;
  • conducting joint Russian-Turkish patrols to monitor the compliance of the agreement;
  • restoration of traffic on the key highways M4 (Aleppo-Latakia) and M5 (Aleppo-Hama).

However, none of these arrangements was fully implemented. Government forces and insurgents constantly violated the ceasefire, HTS refused to accept the agreement and withdraw from the buffer zone, carrying out provocations, and Russian and Syrian jets conducted hundreds of bombardments, targeting numerous civilian facilities. Turkey, on the other hand, failed in its efforts to establish control over the major factions in the area (especially HTS) using its proxies from the Syrian National Army (former Free Syrian Army) and the National Front for Liberation, which is composed from groups with diverse ideologies, including jihadist radicals such as Ahrar al-Sham. All this became the necessary pretext for the government to launch a large-scale offensive at the end of April 2019, which continues (interrupted in September and October) until now with the support from Russia and Iran.

As predicted by De Re Militari team in 2018, such offensive leads to severe humanitarian crisis. According to the UN, since December alone, nearly 700 000 people have been forced to flee the combat zones and seek asylum in the already overcrowded refugee camps along the border with Turkey, where access to clean water, warm shelter and food becomes harder every day. At least 53 medical facilities have suspended services as a result of insecurity, shelling and complete depopulation of entire regions. In this way, some 2.9 million people remain with limited or no access to basic healthcare and the risk of spreading diseases is steadily increasing.

 

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A TEST FOR THE RUSSIAN-TURKISH RELATIONS

The ongoing escalation in any case represents a serious challenge to the good relations that Russia and Turkey have been developing for the last few years. Relations that are actually nothing more than a product of political realism, economic and political pragmatism and mutually shared discontent with the West. All these factors have always played a crucial role in determining the relationship between Turkey and Russia over the last 500 years, when periods of conflict and war alternate with periods of cooperation. This is why their current partnership cannot be qualified as “strategic”, although this term is largely used by high-ranking officials such as the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. It is very difficult to build long-term strategic cooperation, if it is based solely on pragmatism and balance of power without sharing common values and ideals. In this way, reaching a conflict point becomes inevitable.

In the Syrian context, such conflict was just a matter of time and motive to come, although it is unlikely to be a reason for a lasting rift. The two countries have different goals and views regarding Syria (and Libya), but in the broader context, the interests uniting them are more than those dividing them. At least for now.

In any case, the current situation will require reformulating the partnership regarding Syria. In this sense, President Erdogan does not appear to have the upper hand. The more territory the government forces take with Russian support, the more Turkey’s ability to influence the processes in Syria will diminish. Military presence through its army and loyal proxies can guarantee Ankara enough leverage in the negotiations for the future of Syria. Even more – military presence and de facto territorial control are the main options for limiting Kurdish influence and above all – cutting off possibilities the Kurdish authority to obtain any political concessions from Damascus. For Erdogan, a military defeat in Idlib would mean a long-term political loss in Syria.

This is the reason why Turkey sends troops and military equipment. A risky move, given that the airspace of Idlib is entirely controlled by the Syrian and Russian air forces. However, it is a risk Erdogan is willing to take. He sends a clear-cut message through the Turkish army and loyal proxies, that the cost of a military victory would be very high for Damascus. There is also a possibility to open a new front near the city of Al Bab. Such escalation would mean bringing new dynamics to the whole conflict with consequences hard to predict or control.

There is a more likely option for Idlib, which would mean a diplomatic solution and renegotiating. This solution would most probably involve creating new demilitarized zone, serving as an asylum for the refugees. Turkey is already sheltering over 3.5 million people, so it is a matter of security that there is no new uncontrollable refugee waves. Idlib is more specific, because of the presence of many radical jihadist groups and the danger that their members might use the refugee masses as cover to sneak into Turkey.

It is unknown what would be the reaction to such agreement of radicals like HTS, Jaysh al-Ahrar or Huras al-Din (the Al Qaeda branch in Syria). Also, how can they be kept away from this buffer zone, so that there is no pretext for another devastating government offensive.

The whole situation in Idlib is a serious test of the sustainability of the relations between Russia and Turkey. Especially in context of Russia’s foreign intelligence chief visit in UAE, where the main topic was Syria. The UAE-Saudi Arabia-Egypt axis has been having claims for political influence in Syria for years and a possible Russian rapprochement with it, would put Erdogan in a very vulnerable situation, displaced as a major factor. In this regard, the only question here is how far is willing to go Erdogan in order to preserve his position in Syria?

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