Turkey and Russia face tension again over Idlib

(Updates story to add date of Peskov's comments in the 19th paragraph.

Since Dec. 15, Syrian government forces supported by Russian warplanes renewed an attack on rebel-held Idlib from positions south and east of the province. 

Already scores of people on both sides have been killed. The London based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) has reported that in the last week 72 people have been killed and regime forces have regained control over Al-Kharibah and Al-Rabiah. 

Turkish media reported that at least 120,000 civilians have fled the Syrian rebel-held province of Idlib towards the Turkish border and Turkish-controlled areas of Syria in recent days after Russian-backed Syrian government forces intensified their offensive.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was quick to highlight this escalation. While visiting Kuala Lumpur for a conference, Erdoğan said thousands of Syrians from Idlib have fled towards Turkey in the last week and expressed concern that this would only be the beginning.

“Now, there are 50,000 people coming to our lands from Idlib. We already host 4 million people, and now, an additional 50,000 are coming. Maybe this figure will increase even further,” Erdoğan said. 

Russia has periodically increased pressure in Idlib to allow a return of Damascus’ authority over the province through a series of creeping offensives in the last year despite a ceasefire agreement with Turkey. Moscow is acutely aware of the fear in Ankara over the arrival of new refugees and has used it as a means to pressure it into concessions. 

An uptick in Idlib has been expected since at least November when Russian and Turkish diplomats traded accusations against one another over failing to uphold commitments made. 

Turkey accuses Russia of failing to remove Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) militants from the safe zone both sides agreed in October following Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring.

Russia, however, has returned the accusation by reminding its partner of its own failure to remove jihadist militants tied to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) from Idlib as a condition for the latest ceasefire. 

Experts on Russia and Turkey’s relationship in Syria say that this criticism is connected to the limits to cooperation within the status quo between the two and is based on competing priorities in Syria. The most obvious among them are differences related to the YPG, who Ankara views as an extension of its decades-long foe, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). 

This view is not shared by the Russians according to Alexey Khlebnikov of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) in Moscow. Speaking from Paris on Nov. 12, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov emphasised that the Kurds need a place in the political dialogue, even as he acknowledged Turkey’s opposition to the YPG. 

“Russia does not view the YPG/SDF as a terrorist group and consistently calls for it to re-engage with Damascus,” said Khlebnikov.

This has allowed Russia's dealings with the YPG whose political wing, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), has an office in Moscow. Russia has repeatedly affirmed its support for a Kurdish role in Syria’s endgame and has supported reconciliation between competing Kurdish factions. 

A Kurdish National Council (ENKS) delegation visited Moscow on Dec. 16 to discuss Syria where they were encouraged to strike a deal with the PYD.

“When it comes to the Kurdish question, it (Russia) says that ‘You (Kurds) have to make deals and clarify your demands. Then, we can help you in ensuring rights in the future of Syria,'” Kamrian Hajo told the Kurdish news outlet Rudaw. The following day ENKS was permitted to open offices in SDF territory and all legal cases against its members were dropped. 

Turkey reassured Russia that it will respect Syria territorial integrity when Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin met in Sochi after Moscow baulked at Peace Spring’s launch. Erdoğan, when making threats against the YPG, crossed this promise by insisting on Ankara’s right to be in Syria, stating that Turkey “...will not leave here until the other countries get out.” 

On Dec. 6, it was reported that Turkey had assigned mayors in Ras al Ayn (Sari Kani) and Tel Abyad (Gire Spi) and has begun the process of training 4,000 police officers to be recruited in these two northeast Syrian towns captured during Operation Peace Spring. Ankara has similarly set up local administrations in other areas it has occupied in Syria, rebuking Russian protests by insisting only Turkey would decide the terms of its exit from these areas. 

When it comes to Idlib, Russia has chided Turkey for its inability to fulfil its self-appointed task of removing HTS fighters from the province. Ahead of past Idlib operations, Russia has raised concerns about terrorism emanating from Idlib. 

“The process of separating terrorists in Idlib [from moderate forces] has not been carried out yet … Terrorists are still active there, and they pose a threat to the Syrian military and our soldiers,” Asharq Al-Awsat quoted Kremlin spokesman Dmitriy Peskov as saying to Russia’s Channel One on Dec. 16.

In that same interview, Peskov said the Kremlin expects Idlib to be settled soon as the province would be liberated from terrorists threatening Russian and Syrian forces.

Idlib is considered the final bastion of Syria’s opposition against President Bashar Assad and despite two ceasefire deals, Russia has continually backed offensives by the regime. 

“The Idlib deadlock is an issue that is hanging over Turkish-Russian relations as a sword of Damocles,” said Kerim Has, a Moscow based expert on both countries. 

Has says Turkey has not delivered on its commitments under the agreement, particularly the removal of HTS fighters, who now control most of Idlib. Amidst past Turkish threats to renew their offensive against the Kurds, reminders about Idlib serve as a warning against overstepping Russian boundaries related to Turkey’s presence inside Syria. 

Even if Turkey is dissatisfied with the presence of remaining YPG elements near their safe-zone, the deal between Damascus and the Kurds undercuts their ability to act. 

These assertions by Erdoğan mask an actual inability to do much towards undermining Russian priorities it disagrees with, according to RIAC’s Khlebnikov. 

“Erdoğan does not have the capacity to continue military operations outside of his deal with Russia,” Khlebnikov said. 

Russian forces operate daily alongside Kurdish militants and began establishing bases across SDF-held territories including its most recent one in Tel Tamer. While not eliminating the risk of any Turkish offensive, it does deter a wider confrontation and bring the Kurds closer to Russia.

Despite this heightened rhetoric, it is unlikely that Moscow or Ankara would want to scuttle their partnership considering what each has gained from it. 

Putin himself at a BRICS summit in Brazil last month highlighted his strong relationship with Erdogan and reminded Turkey to relay its concerns to Moscow so to “react quickly” if it believes a violation occurred within the safe-zone. After bellicose rhetoric from the Turkish side, Russia says it was assured that no new Turkish military operations would take place and that prior criticism was a “misunderstanding”. 

However, Ankara remains adamant that they will eliminate any threat they see from the YPG. Has says that this could cause friction with Russia who now acts as a gatekeeper in north Syria and is extensively present in Kurdish-populated regions. 

“After the Peace Spring Operation, Russia has emerged as the new main broker on the Kurdish issue. It will be quite a thorny path for Ankara to adapt itself to this new reality.” 

© Ahval English

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