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Tensions between Turkey and Russia rise in Idlib following failed talks

Turkish officials are preparing for the worst case scenario as talks in Ankara made clear that Moscow doesn't want a new deal
Smoke billows from the villages of Jabal al-Zawiya region in the northwest province of Idlib following shelling by pro-Syrian government forces on 15 September 2020 (AFP)
By Ragip Soylu in Ankara

After years of air strikes, clashes, blood and agony, Syria’s last opposition-held province, Idlib, has been enjoying some relative peace for the last six months.

For the first time, activists and civilians were not living under the constant fear of attacks by the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies.

But the situation changed last week during high-level diplomatic talks in Ankara between Russian and Turkish officials.

That same day, Russian warplanes bombarded opposition positions on the outskirts of Idlib, as busloads of civilians ferried by the Assad government near Turkish military observation stations reportedly tried to break past the Turkish military barricades. 

A Turkish source with knowledge of the situation told Middle East Eye that talks between Turkish and Russian officials failed because “the Russian bear” wouldn’t agree to anything reasonable. “They won’t listen,” the source said.

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Russian officials have repeated the same talking point in numerous meetings, pointing to Turkey's responsibility under its commitments in the Sochi deal to get rid of some groups in the Idlib province, such as Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.

No one would say it out loud in Ankara, but those closely following the Syria dossier in the Turkish security establishment know that Russia provoked the latest round of clashes in Idlib in March, which eventually caused the death of more than 60 Turkish soldiers and the loss of a big chunk of territory near the strategic M5 highway. 

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The trust Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had in his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin was lost. Since then, Turkey has focused on not repeating the same mistake.

Idlib is of paramount important to the Turkish leadership because it believes it cannot afford another Syrian refugee crisis in the middle of a dire economic situation, with xenophobic resentment against Syrians on the rise in Turkey.

Ankara has made numerous deployments in Idlib by sending special forces, armoured vehicles including tanks, and air defence systems. It also created a unified war room with opposition armed groups in the city of Hatay to quickly respond to any attack that could come from Assad forces.

“Turkey is training hundreds of Syrians in Idlib against a possible Syrian regime-led offensive,” one Syria expert told MEE. “Turkey has now established an intensive control in Idlib. Regime forces wouldn’t be able to move like they did in March."

One of the fundamental steps that the Turkish military has taken is deploying air defence systems. “Assad cannot send his air assets anymore,” the expert said. “So if you see an air operation, now you know that they are definitely Russians.”

During the meetings in Ankara last week, Turkish officials tried to explain to their Russian counterparts that Turkey now has more control in Idlib and HTS is no longer the threat it used to be. “We are now on the ground and HTS cannot move freely,” one Turkish official said.

“They want us to extract HTS and others from Idlib. Where are we going to send them? Many locals also see them as heroes against the regime.”

Patrols under fire

In recent months, Turkish and Russian military patrols on the strategic M4 highway came under fire by a new and opaque militant group called Khattab al-Shishani Battalions. The attacks have angered Russia, leading it to ask Turkey to cede the territory below the M4 to Assad.

Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov said last weekend that joint patrols have been suspended due to security reasons, ambiguously adding that the Syrian government had no need to conduct any operations in Idlib.

“Maybe they want us to believe that Assad won’t attack any time soon,” the Turkish official said. “But we don’t trust it.”

Even though the general inclination among Syria experts is that a Russian and Syrian government attack is imminent, there are others who disagree. Some officials in Ankara believe Russia would be careful in its dealings in Idlib because it needs Turkey as a counterpart in Libya.

'The Russians were surprised at our resistance in March against their offensive. They won’t tell us but we know what they want. They want us to be gone from Syria'

- Turkish official

Some experts think that Turkey could still satisfy Russian expectations and stop an upcoming war.

Suhail al-Ghazi, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute, said that despite the anger against the attacks on joint patrols, Moscow also failed to honour the deal by not stopping the Syrian government's daily shelling.

“According to sources in HTS and the Free Syrian Army, Turkey will launch a security operation in the area surrounding the highway in Idlib to neutralise the threat by the Khatab al-Shishani Battalions and the other cells which attacked TSK (Turkish army) bases twice,” he said. "This operation, when/if it will succeed, will solve the problem with Russia and Russia won't have a pretext to launch a military operation in Idlib.”

Preparing for attack

Others say Russia had been using the same rhetoric before the clashes earlier this year, reiterating that the Syrian government doesn’t have any reason to conduct operations in Idlib.

“Russia may seem to be comparatively silent, however it is militarily ready for an operation. It could begin one at any moment,” said Levent Kemal, a regional analyst and veteran journalist.

“Tensions have increased since the talks in Ankara. Regime bombardments have become routine. I wouldn’t be surprised to see hostilities begin again in October in Jabal al-Zawiya, which is crucial for the defence of Idlib city.”

Turkish officials believe the rising number of coronavirus cases and the sanctions against the Syrian government could hinder any Russian attempt. Yet they also say the demands from their Russian counterparts won’t end anytime soon. They believe Moscow would find a new reason every time to push Ankara to do the impossible.

“They were surprised at our resistance in March against their offensive,” the official said. “They won’t tell us but we know what they want. They want us to be gone from Syria."

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