Turkey and Russia Clash Over Syria, and Idlib's Residents Are Paying the Price

Turkey doesn’t have many ways out of the corner it has backed itself into, as it tries to please Russia while preventing the Assad regime from capturing Syria's northern province

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Syrian children as their families prepare to flee a camp for the displaced, in the north of the northwestern Idlib province, February 16, 2020.
Syrian children as their families prepare to flee a camp for the displaced, in the north of the northwestern Idlib province, February 16, 2020.Credit: AFP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“More than a million refugees and displaced people are making their way to the Turkish border,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned on Saturday, after a phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump. “Unfortunately, we can’t absorb another million refugees, after we’ve already taken in between 3.5 million and four million.”

Erdogan’s warning was in response to the military campaign of the past few weeks in which the Syrian army, together with the Russian Air Force, has attacked armed militias in Syria’s Idlib province. To date, these attacks have caused almost 800,000 people to flee.

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But Ankara isn’t angry solely over the assault on urban centers and its fear of a new flood of refugees. The offensive has also killed 13 Turkish soldiers. Turkish soldiers occupy 12 outposts in northern Syria with the goal of defending a de-escalation zone there.

Turkey decided to respond forcefully. The Turkish counterattack on Syrian forces killed several dozen Syrian soldiers. Erdogan later threatened that “if even one more Turkish soldier is killed or wounded, Turkey will go to war against Syrian forces everywhere.”

Russia couldn’t allow this threat against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops to pass unanswered. To make matters worse, Erdogan also leveled a series of charges against Moscow, accusing it of violating its agreements with Turkey and letting Assad do as he pleased in Idlib. This is the first time since the two countries renewed their alliance and resumed diplomatic cooperation in Syria that Ankara has directly accused Moscow of responsibility for what’s happening in Idlib and of violating agreements that were supposed to bring about a cease-fire in the province.

Moscow, which had hitherto exercised rhetorical restraint, was furious. In an official briefing last Wednesday, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said, “The situation in Idlib is highly charged ... We believe that this aggravated situation is rooted in Turkey’s neglect for its obligations under the Sochi Memorandum,” a Turkish-Russian agreement signed in September 2018.

The Sochi agreement requires Turkey to persuade the Syrian militias in Idlib to disarm. Ankara is also supposed to persuade fighters in the Islamist militias under its influence to leave the province. For about 18 months, Russia pushed Turkey to fulfill its part of the deal, but to no avail.

Ankara apparently can’t persuade these radical militias, which include Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly known as the Nusra Front) to disarm. Moreover, Turkey fears that a Syrian army takeover of Idlib would prevent it from establishing a security zone in northern Syria, to which it wants to relocate at least a million Syrian refugees now living in Turkey.

But beyond all that, Turkey sees its patronage of the militias in Idlib as a means of wielding diplomatic leverage. Thanks to this patronage, it has a vital role in diplomatic moves in Syria. Without it, Ankara would become irrelevant in any solution that might be found for Syria’s civil war. Therefore, Turkey sees a strategic need to prevent Assad’s forces from retaking the province.

But Syria and Russia show no signs of giving in to Turkey. In January, they signed a cease-fire agreement, but it collapsed soon afterward when Syrian forces took control of two main transportation arteries linking the province to Turkey. That isolated the district and left the militias with almost no way of bringing in supplies from Turkey.

The dilemma, for both Ankara and Moscow, is how far they’re willing to go to maintain the alliance between them. On Monday, high-level Turkish officials held talks with senior Russian officials in Moscow, after talks earlier this month failed to produce a compromise.

Russia fears that a continued deterioration of its relationship with Turkey could seriously undermine the Astana process, which is aimed at securing a political agreement to end Syria’s civil war. But Turkey has much more to lose from a rift.

Turkey’s trade with Russia totals some $25 billion. Russia is Turkey’s main oil and gas supplier. Turkey also bought Russia’s S-400 anti-aircraft missile system and plans to buy the latest Sukhoi fighter planes to compensate for its ouster from America’s F-35 fighter program.

Turkey also vividly remembers the enormous economic damage it suffered when Moscow imposed economic sanctions on it for downing a Russian plane in 2015. In addition, Turkey needs Russian diplomatic support for its plans to drill for gas in the Mediterranean Sea, given America’s support for Greece.

And Ankara is already at odds with Moscow in Libya, where Turkey is providing military assistance to the recognized government while Russia is supporting the insurgent Gen. Khalifa Haftar.

Turkey doesn’t have many ways out of the corner it has backed itself into. From its standpoint, the best would be if Russia agreed to establish a security zone in Idlib jointly supervised by Ankara and Moscow, the Syrian army withdrew to its positions prior to the recent offensive and the diplomatic process resumed. But this option has already been rejected by Syrian and Russia, which seek to reassert Assad’s control over all of Syria.

A second option would be to accept the existing situation on the ground but forcibly prevent the Syrian army’s continued advance. Yet that would risk a direct clash with the Syrian army. And the worst option, from Turkey’s standpoint, would be to launch an all-out offensive that would put it on a direct collision course with Moscow.

Of these options, it’s hard to see any that would let Turkey extricate itself without paying a military toll, strategic toll or damage to its prestige.

Meanwhile, Washington is trying to exploit the tension between Ankara and Moscow to widen the rift between them. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and his special envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, sided with Ankara by terming the Syrian offensive an attack on Turkey.

But it’s far from clear that Ankara is overjoyed by this American gesture, since it puts Turkey in an embarrassing position with its Russian ally. Moreover, this is the same Washington that continues to threaten Ankara with sanctions for its S-400 deal with Russia, as well as the superpower that’s preventing Turkey from seizing control of Kurdish regions of Syria.

None of these considerations interests the three million residents of Idlib, who are being bombed and shelled by the Syrian army and Russian planes. With no functioning hospitals and infrastructure in ruins, these residents have only one way to save their lives – making it to Turkey. But en route, they will have to contend with Turkish troops who will try to stop any refugees from crossing the border.

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