Russia and Turkey finding it increasingly hard to agree in Syria - analyst

Turkey might have to decide whether its priority is a deal east or west of the Euphrates River, and whether it should give up Tel Rifaat, Manbij or Idlib as the country finds itself increasingly unable to agree with Russia on Syria, wrote Joe Macaron, a fellow at the Arab Center Washington D.C., in analysis he penned for Al Jazeera.

Sources on the ground in Syria's northwest Idlib, Aleppo and Hama provinces have reported an unprecedented increase in bombardment by the Russian and Syrian regime following two attacks by the al-Qaeda-linked Hay'et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) killed 22 pro-regime fighters on April 27.

The bombardment was also the most significant one since Moscow and Ankara reached a tentative deal to avert a ground offensive by establishing a demilitarised zone in rebel-held areas in Syria’s northwest last September, the article noted.

Close to 500 civilians have died in recent months, as the terms of the agreement have been repeatedly violated, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Ankara had long opposed any Syrian offensive against Idlib, out of concern about refugees and to focus on President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s primary goal of keeping the Kurdish-led People’s Protection Units (YPG) from taking control of Syria’s northeast frontier.

Turkey says the YPG is an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting inside Turkey for more than three decades and is on both countries’ terror lists.

These attacks and the developments that followed,  Macaron wrote, demonstrate that significant cracks are appearing in the alliance between Moscow and Ankara, as they struggle to implement the agreed ceasefires.

It was their mutual interest of containing United States pressure that pushed Turkey and Russia to work together up until this point, the article said. However, ‘’Moscow has run out of patience with Ankara and its inability to rein in HTS and secure the full implementation of the demilitarised zone, while the Turkish side has grown frustrated that Russian promises to push the YPG out of Tel Rifaat have remained unfulfilled,’’ it noted.

Meanwhile, Ankara has been trying to "play" both Moscow and Washington to secure its interests east and west of the Euphrates River, Macaron said.

The distrust between Moscow and Ankara has amplified since the military escalation.

An agreement could not be reached on April 25-26, during another round of Astana talks between Russia, Turkey and Iran. And then, on May 2, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced that Ankara and Washington were getting close to establishing a "security zone" east of the Euphrates River, along the Syrian-Turkish border. 

And this move is what likely led Moscow to up the pressure on the two main areas of Turkish concern: Tel Rifaat and Idlib, Macaron wrote.

Russia and Iran are looking to maintain Tel Rifaat as a buffer zone to keep Turkey and its Syrian allies at arm's length, it underlined, but Ankara is eyeing control the area to consolidate its gains in the Kurdish enclave of Afrin and push forward towards Manbij, in a bid prevent the formation of an area connected territory controlled by YPG.

Syria’s Idlib is vital for both Turkey and Russia, it said. The former fears the Syrian regime taking over the province and surrounding rebel-held areas would mean significant political leverage in the Syrian conflict and another wave of Syrian refugees fleeing to its borders.

Idlib’s significance for Russia, however, is strategic ‘’since roughly two-thirds of the M4 and M5 highways that link respectively Latakia to Aleppo and Damascus to Aleppo pass through the province,’’ it said.

While Moscow seems open to offering Ankara the chance to expand into Tel Rifaat in exchange for a Russian advance in southern Idlib, Macaron wrote, such a deal would be hard to negotiate.

‘’Russia and Turkey prefer to delay openly clashing over their diverging interests and instead opt for incremental deals without giving the impression that they are making concessions,’’ the article opined.

It is this kind of persistent ambiguity in relations between the two countries, it said, that promises further escalation and unpredictability in the northwest of war-torn Syria.