Impact of Idlib offensive on Turkey-Russia relations

Idlib province, the Syrian opposition’s last stronghold, is a major source of dispute between seemingly staunch allies within the conflict, Turkey and Russia.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said on May 15 that by conducting air strikes and ground operations in Idlib, Syrian President Bashar Assad “sought to sabotage Turkish-Russian cooperation” and violate the ceasefire agreement. Not being able to blame Russian President Vladimir Putin directly, Erdoğan instead chose to criticise Assad. But it seems that Putin got the message and responded to Erdoğan with another wave of air strikes on Idlib on May 17 that was followed by a unilateral ceasefire by the Assad regime and Russia.

According to different figures, up to 3 million civilians reside in Idlib and half of the residents are internally displaced people who have come from elsewhere in Syria. Idlib is also the last refuge for opposition fighters from other regions captured by government forces. Because of the bombings by the Assad regime and Russian forces, more than 150,000 civilians have already fled from the province.

Due to its strategic importance, both the Assad regime and Russia are determined not to leave Idlib under opposition control. Retaking Idlib would be an important symbolic milestone towards Assad’s goal of reasserting control over all of Syria.

Idlib provides Russia leverage against Turkey. Russia and Turkey signed a memorandum in September to establish de-escalation zones in Idlib that put the burden of keeping opposition groups there in order on Turkish forces. But since then Russia and Assad regime have criticised Turkey and accused it of failing to fulfil its part of the deal. The biggest complaint was over Turkey’s unwillingness or failure to control several extremist groups, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, an al-Qaeda-affiliated umbrella group that took control of most of Idlib's critical areas.

While criticising Turkey for its failure to impose full control over radical groups, Russia so far has managed to avert a full-scale military assault by regime forces against Idlib. It appears that Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, will instead continue to target Idlib a piecemeal way rather than a full-on offensive.

Any humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib would have a domino effect in the region. Turkey already hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees. A major military operation against Idlib would result in hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of new refugees heading to Turkey. The public in Turkey is already frustrated with the presence of the Syrian refugees, which has been was fuelled by an economic crisis, and many more new refugees would exacerbate tensions. Those who do not make it to Turkey end up in neighbouring areas in Syria controlled by Turkish forces and their Syrian allies.

The loss of Idlib might lead Turkey to direct the opposition groups it backs against the mainly Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria. For now, Turkey appears to have responded to the attacks on Idlib by providing new supplies of weaponry, according to al Jazeera, to the opposition groups there.

At a time when Turkey’s economic, political, and military relations with Russia are deepening and its ties with the West are fraught over a range of disputes, Ankara might well swallow the loss of Idlib, but the price tag for its rapprochement with Russia will continue to rise.

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