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Can Putin force a new deal with Erdogan over Idlib?

Feb 11,2020 - Last updated at Feb 11,2020

The shaky Turkish-Russian alliance is facing its toughest challenge yet over the fate of Idlib province, the last bastion of anti-Bashar Assad rebels. In fact the 2018 Sochi agreement between Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin to create a de-militarised zone in most of Idlib is now over as Ankara has dispatched hundreds of armoured vehicles and more than 6,000 troops into the besieged province to stop the advance of Syrian government forces.

A Russian military delegation has failed to reach a new understanding with Turkey earlier this week in a meeting in the Turkish capital. Erdogan and Putin are set to meet soon to resolve their differences. The Turkish president said last week that Russia has failed to abide by the Sochi and Astana agreements. He declared the Astana process, which involves Iran as well, “moribund”.

Turkey is not wasting anytime. Reports say that Turkish artillery has struck Syrian government positions in retaliation for the killing of Turkish soldiers at an observation post inside Idlib last week. Syrian troops, supported by Russian air force, had recaptured the strategic towns of Maarat Al Numan and Saraqeb in a bid to control two main highways linking Aleppo to Damascus and Latakia. They faced little resistance from Turkish backed rebels.

The latest Syrian offensive, which began last December, has forced more than half a million civilians to flee towards the Turkish borders. Hundreds have been killed as a result of Russian aerial strikes that targeted schools and hospitals, according to international aid groups working in that area.

For Russia, it is Turkey that has failed to meet its commitment to separate so-called moderate rebel fighters from terrorist groups; namely Hayat Tahrir Al Sham, formerly Al Nusra. The latter has an estimated 30,000 fighters in the province. Ankara, on the other hand, sees the latest offensive as a breach of the Sochi agreement that created a buffer zone in Idlib. For the regime, the liberation of Idlib would mean the end of the nine-year uprising and a resounding victory for President Assad.

Damascus sees the Turkish presence on its territory as occupation while Ankara claims that the 1998 Adana agreement gives it the right to protect its national security against threats posed by Kurdish groups in Syria. It had launched a number of operations to control vast swaths of northern Syrian territory, the last of which was aimed at pushing the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) beyond its positions east of the Euphrates. Russia was able to convince Turkey to run joint patrols along the borders to ensure that YPG fighters do not pose a threat.

But now Erdogan seems to be ready to raise the ante even at the expense of his alliance with Putin. For him the loss of Idlib presents a number of challenges. Turkey will not open its borders for a new influx of refugees. Its presence in Idlib is a major card that Erdogan was hoping to use once a final political settlement in Syria is reached. His main concern remains the threat posed by Syrian Kurds in the future. While the US had withdrawn from Syria, it continues to maintain military presence in mostly Kurdish areas in eastern Syria.

The Syrian Democratic Council (SDC), the political wing of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which comprises Kurdish, Arab and other ethnic groups in north and east Syria, is currently negotiating with Damascus through Russian mediation in the hope of reaching an agreement on the future of territories under its control. A de-centralised and autonomous entity under the SDC would be seen as a threat to Turkey.

Ankara’s plans to change the demographic structure of areas along its borders with Syria have not worked. Erdogan’s ambitions to have his military deployed deep into Syrian territory have been checked by the Russians. Now his troops risk direct clash with the Syrian government army in Idlib. But a last minute summit with Putin could save the day, for now. Russian and Turkish interests in Idlib are difficult, if not impossible to, reconcile. Putin will try again to re-start secret talks between Ankara and Damascus. A first of its kind meeting since 2011 had reportedly taken place in Moscow on 13 January between Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and his Syrian counterpart Ali Mamlouk. A tentative cease-fire agreement in Idlib was reached but was short lived.

The latest Turkish deployment may end in a stalemate on the ground. Neither Putin nor Erdogan would want to see their alliance collapse. A period of delicate diplomatic negotiations will begin soon to find a way out. Turkey wants assurances, and a say, with regard to the future of Syrian Kurdish regions. For Syria an end to Turkish military presence and support of rebel groups are top priority. Chances are that Putin will make a breakthrough that satisfies both sides, avoiding direct military clash in Idlib.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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