Turkey’s ultimate test in Idlib

Turkey is facing a more difficult test each passing day in Idlib, but nobody could say the troubles there were unforeseen.

Last year, Syria had decided to carry out a military offensive to oust the rebels entrenched in Idlib, when Turkey asked Russia to urge Syrian President Bashar Assad to postpone the attack to prevent a massive flow of refugees to the Turkish border. An agreement was reached in Sochi last September to delay the Syrian offensive so that Turkey could persuade at least some of the rebel groups to lay down their arms.

Despite its genuine efforts, Turkey failed to do so, and al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham instead snatched up chunks of territory, which prodded Syria to launch its offensive in late April, backed by Russian air support.

Moscow’s unease with Turkey’s failure to deliver on its promise was voiced from President Putin down to foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova. Turkey seemed to ignore these polite but straightforward reminders.

Last week, a Turkish convoy carrying equipment to the Turkish observation post in Morek was attacked by the Syrian air force. Syria says this reinforcement was being sent not to Turkish troops, but to the defeated rebels in Khan Sheikhoun. Considering this thinking, it’s understandable that no country would take the risk of letting cross its sovereign territory military equipment that could be used against its own army.

Furthermore, Syria has clearly stated that it sees all armed opposition groups as legitimate targets and believes it is entitled to oust them from its territory -- a view that has received Russian backing.

Since Turkish authorities complained about the Khan Sheikhoun attack, they must have presumed, or at least hoped, that last year’s postponement of the Idlib offensive would be indefinite. This misjudgement likely stemmed from undue optimism.

The attack on the Turkish convoy took place a few hours after Turkey notified the Russian side that a reinforcement convoy was on its way to the observation post. It is unlikely that the message had failed to reach Russian authorities on time. We may, therefore, presume that the attack was deliberate.

The international media reported that the three people killed in the attack included Hussein Kassem, commander of the Al-Sham Legion (Failaq al-Sham), a Turkey-supported armed opposition, who was escorting the convoy. If this is true, Syria may have specifically targeted him in an effort to reveal Turkey’s intricate relations with the armed opposition.

The fall of Khan Sheikhoun to Syrian forces isolates Turkey’s observation post, though Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Çavuşoğlu has said that the post is not besieged. His statement may be technically accurate, but if Turkish soldiers have to cross Syrian-controlled territory to reach the post, whether Turkish authorities consider it besieged or not is irrelevant. If nothing is left to be observed, the status of the observation post has to be adjusted to the reality in the field, which means it should be moved to another place or phased out.

Turkish President Erdoğan paid a one-day visit to Moscow on Tuesday, the day after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the attack on the Turkish convoy was legal.

“The terrorists carried out several attacks from Idlib, not only at the Syrian army, but also at the Russian military base in Hmeimim,” said Lavrov. “It is only natural to attack these terrorist nests. We did not give assurance in any agreement we signed that the terrorists will not be attacked. This is also in line with the UN Security Council resolution on Syria.”

Russia’s strong support for the attack cannot be said more plainly.

The press conference held at the end of a one-and-a-half-hour talk between the Turkish and Russian presidents indicated that the parties maintain their respective positions and are still not on the same page regarding Idlib.

Some of the controversial issues seem to have been pushed under the carpet, at least until the Trilateral Summit of the Astana process guarantors to be held, on Sept. 16, in Turkey. Since Iran is also a strong supporter of the Syrian regime, Turkey may be exposed in this summit to greater pressure from both Russia and Iran.

Meanwhile, the clock continues to tick in Idlib: On Wednesday, a Syrian airstrike landed so close to a Turkish observation post that it damaged the walls.