Turkey-Russia relations strained in Syria's Idlib - pro-govt outlet

In an effort to slow the Russia-backed Syrian offensive in Idlib and avoid a humanitarian crisis, Turkey is helping rebels mount a major counteroffensive, putting “extreme pressure” on Ankara-Moscow relations, said an analysis for pro-government Daily Sabah.

While Turkey and Russia have strengthened ties since 2016, highlighted by Ankara’s looming purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system, relations between Ankara and Damascus have been icy since the start of the war in 2011, when Turkey’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) government backed rebel groups looking to topple President Bashar Assad.

Low-level contacts still exist between the neighbors, but these are more about intelligence and logistics than real diplomacy.

The ongoing Russia-backed Assad regime offensive in Syria’s last rebel stronghold -- the biggest escalation of the war in a year, which threatens to send more than a million displaced Syrians to Turkey’s border -- is doing little to improve the situation, and has even begun to undermine Ankara-Moscow relations, Obaida Hitto, producer for state-run TRT World, said on Tuesday in Daily Sabah.

“The recent escalation in Idlib has significantly jeopardised the Russian venture of rehabilitating Assad's position in the eyes of Ankara – not as long as the AK Party is in power,” said Hitto.

The offensive has forced Turkey, which already hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees, to assess its readiness for a humanitarian emergency, as more than 300,000 people have been displaced in Idlib. “There may not be a lot Turkey can do for the displaced civilians,” said Hitto.

Turkey has sought to stem the possible refugee tide by taking the fight to Assad, encouraging rebels to mount a major counter-offensive. Ankara has shifted hundreds of Free Syrian Army fighters from Turkey-controlled territories to Idlib, supplying them with vehicles and heavy weapons, and delivered all-important anti-tank missiles to the front lines, according to Hitto.

Rebels have been posting videos online of regime tanks and armored personnel carriers targeted with these missiles. “The result has been the demoralisation of regime forces that did not expect such strong resistance and significant material and human losses to the army already fatigued by eight years of war,” wrote Hitto, adding that regime losses have been significant, thanks in part to Turkey’s support.

Meanwhile, Russia has been using Turkish airspace to re-supply its Hmeimim airbase, from which it launches strikes in support of Assad. Last week, Moscow said it was Turkey’s duty to stop the rebels from fighting in Idlib, a reference to Turkey’s commitment last September to reduce the influence in Idlib of al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al Shaam (HTS), which has only expanded its reach this year. On Tuesday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan said he may speak to his Russian counterpart about the situation in Idlib. 

Yet Hitto sees potential for a breakthrough in mending relations between HTS and Ankara-backed rebel groups, which would put Turkey in a stronger negotiating position and possibly lead to a peace deal.

“The current developments in Idlib may actually help all the conflicting parties to realise that the status quo must change and more weight should be given to real political change and transition,” said Hitto.