Idlib battle imperils Turkey-Russia alliance, Turkey-Assad rapprochement

Renewed fighting this week in Syria’s last rebel stronghold could spark re-escalation in the country’s nine-year civil war and endanger the budding alliance between Turkey and Russia, as well as signs of rapprochement between Ankara and Damascus.  

Shelling by the government of President Bashar Assad killed seven Turkish soldiers and three civilians on Monday in Idlib province, where Turkey maintains a dozen observation posts. Turkey responded by pounding Syrian government positions and said it had killed scores of Assad troops. 

“The immediate trajectory is escalation,” said independent Syria analyst Kyle Orton, adding that Turkey’s Syrian rebel proxies had lost the territory they had gained this past weekend. 

“My suspicion is that after Turkey makes the point that she cannot be totally pushed around in northwestern Syria, this dies down,” he added. “But even that cannot be guaranteed because of the underlying facts of the situation.”

In a Tuesday phone call, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin agreed to improve coordination in Syria, while Erdoğan reaffirmed Turkey’s right to defend itself against attacks in Idlib. 

Also on Tuesday, Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu urged Russia to do more to rein in Syrian forces in Idlib. This highlights a key underlying problem in Idlib, where the United States, Israel and Turkey have been dealing with Moscow as if it had the power to force Assad’s hand. 

“It does not, even when the Putin regime acts in good faith,” said Orton. “Iran controls events on the ground, and shares Assad’s maximalist vision for reconquest; the Russians fall in behind them, ultimately, since the Kremlin’s power in Syria rests on Iranian ground troops.”

So, Iran and Assad view the remaining rebel-held areas of Idlib as filled with terrorists and plan to drive them out, most likely into Turkey. Russia appears to share this view. On Tuesday, Russian state news outlets RIA Novosti and TASS reported that Turkey has been backing jihadist groups in Syria linked to al Qaeda. 

“There can be no safe haven for terrorists in Syria,” a Twitter user known for posting pro-Russia views said on Tuesday. “Those in Idlib must surely have known their time would come. It is here. If they don't leave into the arms of the benefactors Turkey and various Western nations, they will find another, and harder fate.”

Meanwhile, Turkey wants to maintain control of the area along its border to ensure stability and halt the flow of more Syrian refugees, which in the past year have become a political issue. 

“There is no split-the-difference path viable in Idlib, where Turkey’s and Russia’s directly clash,” said Orton. “Either Turkey gets to keep this buffer area and internally displaced people zone, or Russia and the Assad/Iran system prevail, pushing upward of a million more refugees into Turkey; a political, economic, and social strain the Turkish government absolutely does not want.”

On Tuesday evening, a Syrian military analyst reported that as many as half a million people were preparing to leave their homes in Idlib in the face of Assad forces' advance. "Mass exodus started tonight. 1,000s of civilians are currently leaving Saraqeb," tweeted Qalaat Al-Mudiq, alongside photos and video footage. "Endless column of vehicles with civilians fleeing tonight (east) Idlib towards Turkish border."

Turkey last year purchased Russian-made S-400 missile defence systems, upsetting its NATO allies and potentially triggering U.S. sanctions. Earlier this year, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan jointly called for a ceasefire in Libya. Last month, at Libya ceasefire talks in Moscow, Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan met his Syrian government counterpart - the first high-level meeting between Turkey and the Syrian government in years. 

Last week, Erdoğan said that Russia was violating its promises in Idlib and that Syria-Turkey talks on Idlib had fallen silent, a comment Orton saw as “the most public signal Ankara’s understanding with the Russians is fraying.”

On Tuesday, Mehmet Barlas, a columnist for the newspaper Sabah known for close links to top Turkish government officials, wrote that Turkey could review its relations with Russia if it continued to favour Assad. 

Fears of direct confrontation between Russian and Turkish forces in Idlib are likely overblown, as both sides prefer to rely on their proxies, and the latest Idlib offensive is driven by Assad forces. But Turkish troops and Assad’s forces are in direct conflict on the battlefield and any Russia-brokered deal for Idlib seems far away, as does an end to Syria’s civil war. 

“Erdoğan and the circle around him deeply distrust Assad ... and recent events are likely to reinforce this image,” said Orton. “Whether what has happened already has forced a rethink about normalising with Assad, it could be overtaken by events if this round of hostilities spirals into something beyond a week or so of fighting.”

© Ahval English

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