Diverging policies could mar Russian-Turkish Syria alignment in long term - analysts

Turkey’s deal with Russia on Idlib, the last major territory in Syria held by the opposition, has brought the two countries together as the major international actors in the conflict, though differences in their long-term policies may make this alignment a temporary one, regional experts have said in a survey conducted by the Carnegie Middle East Center.

The Idlib deal, which has held off an assault on the western Syrian province by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies, is in one sense a concession by Russia, since it would prefer to remove the source of danger to its forces deployed in nearby Latakia, said Carnegie Moscow Center director Dmitri Tenin.

However, since the deal leaves it up to Turkey to do the “heavy lifting” of “disciplining” opposition forces and removing extremist groups like the Al-Qaeda affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in a short time frame, the deal works in Moscow’s favour, he said.

“If Erdoğan fails to deliver, next time he will have to listen to Putin,” said Tenin.

For Sinan Ülgen, a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, the Russian-Turkish alignment is a positive development that increases the chances of a lasting political solution to the Syrian conflict.

However, since Russia’s interest in extending the Assad regime’s control over Syrian territory is unlikely to add up with Turkey’s long-term security concerns, including the status of the Kurdish region on its border, it is questionable whether this alignment will last, he said.

American University of Paris associate professor Ziad Majed, meanwhile, sees the Idlib agreement as the result of three distinct considerations – the first being Turkey’s desire “to remain a decisive actor in northern Syria and to resist any attempt that would allow Iran and the Syrian regime to be present on its southern border.”

The other factors are Russia’s desire to prevent a large military campaign in Idlib involving Iranian and Shi’a forces, and Europe’s fears that such a campaign could lead to a new and sustained wave of migration of Syrians fleeing the conflict through Turkey towards European borders.

However, Majed said, it is difficult to predict whether the agreement is sustainable, since “Russian and Turkish interests diverge when it comes to a final solution.”

As for the Assad regime, although the agreement prevents it from overrunning the last major opposition-controlled territory in the country, it is not necessarily an unwelcome one, said International Crisis Group analyst Sam Heller.

“(The agreement) clearly is welcome in Moscow and satisfies Turkish interests and security needs. But it also seems to burden Turkey with reducing the most extreme rebel elements in Idlib and, if that somehow succeeds, securing the major highways that crisscross Idlib and matter most to Damascus—and all by a set of hard, imminent deadlines,” Heller said.

“Russia has invited a larger, more hands-on role for Turkey in Idlib, but one that may serve Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s ends. This could be another instance of Russia balancing and accommodating the interests of Syria’s neighbors while incrementally advancing its overall campaign in support of Damascus,” he added.