Turkey plays balancing act between Russia and Syrian rebel groups - analyst

Turkey needs further cooperation with Russia to slow the gains of Syrian government forces in northern Syria and give time for Turkish military forces to exert their own control in the area, Middle East expert Michaël Tanchum wrote for the Turkey Analyst.

“Turkey's priority is to secure Russia's assent to Turkey asserting its influence in Kobani and other Kurdish-dominated regions along Turkey's southern border,” said Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy.

On March 5, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, agreed to a ceasefire in a bid to end fighting in Syria’s northeastern Idlib province between Turkey-backed rebel forces and the Syrian military, which is backed by Russia.

The deal, seen as an addendum to the 2018 Sochi agreement, aims to establish a security corridor stretching around 6 km north and south of the west M4 highway that connects Latakia and Saraqeb.

Ankara deployed over 1,100 new military units in Idlib within two weeks after the March 5 agreement, Tanchum wrote, to deter pro-Damascus forces from continuing its push into the province and to cope with opposition jihadist groups, which Turkey “does not exert a controlling influence” over in the area.

“Ongoing attacks along the highway have revealed there is widening divergence of interests between several opposition groups and Turkey,” he wrote.

Tanchum also referred to a March 15 incident, when a joint Turkish-Russian patrol faced a hundreds-strong roadblock manned by rebels and protestors on the M4 highway. The patrol turned back so not to escalate the situation outside of Tronbeh, a village the Turkish-allied National Liberation Front controls.

Reports have emerged that the NLF itself has rejected Ankara's deal with Moscow, as approximately half of the NLF senior command resigned from their positions, Tanchum wrote, underlining the widening cracks between Turkey and its Syrian allies.

Turkey's relationship with Russia is “transactional” and should not be mistaken for a strategic partnership, the expert wrote. “In the immediate Syrian context, Ankara is willing to compartmentalize whatever losses it endured in Idlib in order to continue cooperating with Moscow to preserve Turkey's critical interests in northern Syria.”