Can Russia and Turkey break the deadlock in Syria’s Idlib?

Russia and Turkey have brokered a ceasefire in Syria’s northwest Idlib province. It is yet to be seen if this ceasefire can finally bring an end to this latest round of fighting between the Russian-backed Syrian regime and the Turkish-backed opposition that began on April 30. It has also yet to be seen whether Turkey and Russia can find enough common ground in Idlib to finally break the deadlock in that strategically important province.

The latest offensive marked the most ferocious fighting in Idlib this year and showcased the limits of the Russian-Turkish ceasefire agreement last September, which compelled Turkey to contain the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist group that controls most of the province. Turkey has failed to do so.

In January, following just over a week of clashes, Turkey’s rebel proxies in Idlib, the National Liberation Force (NLF) ceded large parts of Idlib as well as swathes of neighbouring Aleppo and Hama provinces to HTS, effectively allowing that group to consolidate its control over the province. Russia has on more than one occasion criticised Turkey for failing to contain the HTS threat.

Since the regime launched its offensive into Idlib, Turkey has supplied the NLF with more arms to fight the offensive. The NLF has actively fought alongside HTS to repel regime advances in this latest round of fighting.

Russia has continuously urged for the separation of such groups from the jihadists that make up the rank-and-file of HTS.

An anonymous Turkish official confided to Middle East Eye their belief that Russia has used HTS’ presence in Idlib as “a pretext to attack” the province.

“They claim the implementation of the agreement to remove them from the area dragged on too long,” the official said, referring to the aforementioned September ceasefire deal. “They believe Turkish observation stations granted a safety net for the armed opposition and facilitated their recovery.”

On May 4, one of those 12 observation posts the Turkish Army established around Idlib as part of the Astana Agreement’s de-escalation zone for the province was hit by regime fire wounding two Turkish troops. Turkey did not retaliate but has since reportedly reinforced these posts, suggesting it intends to actively oppose a regime offensive rather than simply withdraw if fighting intensifies.

This latest ceasefire agreement with Russia may have been undertaken to avoid any further escalation that could result in a direct clash between Syrian and Turkish military forces. Whether it lasts, however, has yet to be seen.

“It’s possible to imagine a ceasefire at some point in this round that lasts a few months or maybe even longer,” said Kyle Orton, an independent Middle East analyst.

“But there will be no lasting deal over Idlib that leaves it in the hands of insurgents because the bedrock strategic fact is that the Assad-Iran system, the driving force of the pro-Assad coalition, the troops on the ground, wants Idlib back, and the Russians cannot stop them.”

Orton also noted that the “piecemeal efforts” this coalition made in Idlib recently “can be partly explained by the chronic manpower problems and they’re partly political, driven by Russia’s desire to keep its détente with Turkey going, which allows it to continue causing trouble within NATO.”

Russia, he added, has “tacitly linked Idlib and the S-400 deal” in order to apply pressure and threaten “worse on the former to ensure Turkey doesn’t back away from the latter.”

“Russia and Turkey do have a fundamental divergence of interests over Idlib that cannot be fudged. That said, there are variables in how it plays out.”

“The (Turkish-supported) Syrian rebellion has been defeated and Ankara has lost serious interest in removing Assad, so relations need not return to the directly confrontational state they were in before 2016,” Orton said.

Before August 2016 Turkey and Russia were opposed to each other in Syria in a cold war that culminated in the November 2015 Turkish shooting down of a Russian bomber along the Syrian-Turkey border. That incident seriously strained ties between Ankara and Moscow for seven months until relations thawed after Turkey expressed regret for the incident and the two began broadly cooperating in Syria, despite the fact their interests clearly diverged in many areas.

Ultimately, Orton contended, the “deciding factor” over the Idlib deadlock was how the Russian-backed regime forces go about retaking the province if Turkey “does not find a way to seriously deter the pro-Assad coalition” from doing so.

Professor Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and head of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma said that in the latest Idlib fighting Turkey was “the principal supplier and armourer of the military forces there.”

“Arms have been pouring into Idlib to strengthen HTS,” Landis said. “They have allowed jihadist forces there to launch a formidable offensive in Hama, pinning back the regime for the time being.”

He argued that Russia showed “a timid response” to this that perplexed both “the regime forces and onlookers.”

“Clearly Russia is in negotiations with Turkey and is hesitant to push the world community too far, fearing any international response on the side of HTS could be detrimental to long term aims of retaking the lost Syrian province.”

Landis also noted that Turkey’s border with Idlib “has again turned into a massive resupply route and Turkish hospitals are receiving the wounded from Idlib and Hama’s battlefields.”

By arming the NLF, Ankara sought to make Syria’s advance more costly and let “Russia know that it will not be steamrolled.”

This once again put Russia and Turkey on a collision course in Syria, which ran the risk of “a temporary reversion to sort of full pitched battles between the two that marked the period before August 2016.”

Timur Akhmetov, an Ankara-based Russia and Turkey affairs analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), said it’s “hard to tell for sure what is going on between Turkey and Russia” in Idlib.

“It is true that both are interested in keeping some mechanism of coordination in Idlib,” Akhmetov said.

“Apparently, Russia thinks that Sochi memorandum, at least as it was formulated back then, is not implemented. Turkey can’t or doesn’t want to put pressure on HTS.”

Akhmetov believes that there is a possibility that both Ankara and Moscow “understood that the Sochi terms should be renewed, both are trying to forge suitable conditions.”

“Current fights are symptomatic: the opposition’s heavy arms and vehicles get destroyed, anti-tank guided missiles get spent, pro-Turkish forces are deployed in regions where HTS were recently dominant,” he said.

“Perhaps Russia and Turkey are trying to form a new configuration in Idlib to create a buffer zone without HTS.”

Akhmetov also doubts that the recent round of fighting indicated that “an all-out confrontation of all against all” was in the making “mainly because there is only one front.”

“It would have been more useful for Syrian Army to create multiple fronts,” he said. “Also, there are no cases of Russian jets getting shot down by portable anti-aircraft missiles in the opposition’s possession and Turkey is still talking about taking delivery of the S-400 air defence systems from Russia.”

“On top of this, Russian pro-government media aren’t publishing critical articles on Turkish assistance to the opposition and so forth.”

Consequently, Akhmetov reasoned that the most recent violence in Idlib seemed more “like a controlled instability, to let some steam off and forcefully change the balance of power in Idlib vis-à-vis HTS.”

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.