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Can the Ankara-Moscow alliance survive the Idlib test?

The Turkey-Russia Crisis Over Idlib

While a handshake was expected between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad after the high-level security talks between the parties under the auspices of Moscow, a serious crisis started between Ankara and Moscow.

There are many scenarios about the behind-the-scenes reasons of the crisis that erupted over the last offensive of the Syrian troops backed by the Russian air force to Idlib. It became even more serious after seven Turkish soldiers and one civilian military contractor were reportedly killed and thirteen other individuals were injured by Syrian army fire. Ankara’s harsh retaliation reportedly eliminated 76 Syrian soldiers, according to official Turkish sources. This is the largest clash between the two armies since the start of the war in 2011. Turkey has urged Russia to restrain Damascus and stop the offensive on Idlib.

There are signs that Ankara is turning towards Washington for support because of the conflict. Meanwhile, intensive diplomatic efforts are going on to solve the crisis between Moscow and Ankara. The outcome would determine not just the future of the Turkey-Russia alliance but the future of the region as well.

Turkey Blames Russia And Syria For Breaking Idlib Ceasefire

Ankara has been warning both Moscow and Damascus to obey the latest ceasefire in Idlib declared by Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Ankara last month but to no avail. The overwhelming bombing going on in Idlib province⁠—one of the last strongholds of the rebel forces in Syria⁠—has also started a new refugee influx toward the borders of Turkey that is already hosting about 4 million Syrian refugees. Moscow is committed to prevent such a scenario by the agreements within Astana process, a tripartite mechanism to solve Syrian crises between Ankara, Moscow and Tehran. In the wake of Syrian attacks on Turkish troops, Erdogan furiously declared the Astana process dead and asked Moscow to choose either Ankara or Damascus as an ally.

Erdogan rushed to Ukraine⁠—which is at odds with Russia⁠—to sign a free trade agreement and offer about 30 million dollars credit to buy weapons from Turkey after he didn’t get a satisfying answer from Moscow but instead more bombings by Russian aircraft in Idlib. Hours before he flew to Kyiv, the Turkish soldiers were killed and injured by the Syrian shelling while they were trying to build new military posts in strategic Serakib region “to control the refugee flow” despite Turkey saying that the “information sent to the Russians and Syrians” on their mission and whereabouts. Was the strike in allowing Syria to hit the position a message from Moscow? There is no way to know for now.

Erdogan Promises Revenge

Erdogan vowed to retaliate at the airport, “We have responded in kind to these attacks and will continue to do so… We are determined to continue our operations for the security of our country, people and our brothers in Idlib.”

He was cautious enough, however, to make it clear that Turkey’s actions were not against the Russian forces in Syria. Yet that did not prevent Erdogan from redeclaring the annexation of Crimea by Russia as illegal during his visit to Kyiv. Erdogan has been silent on the issue since the military coup against him in 2016 that he prevailed reportedly with the support of Moscow. Erdogan toned down his harsh rhetoric on his way back. “There is no need for conflict or contradictions with Russia,” he said. “There are serious strategic initiatives taking place.” Nonetheless, Erdogan stressed that Turkey will keep its military observation posts in Idlib with necessary fortifications. “The attack targeted the Turkish servicemen was a very clear violation of the Idlib agreement and so will have consequences for the Assad regime,” he stated.

Erdogan And Putin Have Tense Talk On Phone

Erdogan and Putin reportedly had a scheduled conversation over the phone on Feb.4, yet apparently it did not help to ease the tension between them since different readouts of what was discussed were published afterwards.

Erdogan stressed that the attack against the Turkish soldiers was a big blow to mutual efforts for peace in Syria and Turkey will not hesitate to use her right of self-defence if such incidents occur in the future. This is according to the Turkish media.

On the other hand in the Kremlin ‘s information note to the press, there is no reference to the attack against the Turkish soldiers, nor any condolences whatsoever. The necessity of the strict implementation of the agreements between Turkey and Russia against the radicals in the region was underlined as well as the urgent need for two countries’ defense ministers to maintain close coordination.

The next day Erdogan said he conveyed to Putin that if the Syrian regime will not retreat from Turkish observation posts in Idlib in February, Turkey itself will be obliged to make this happen. Speaking to his party’s lawmakers in parliament, “Turkey’s sole expectation from Russia in Syria is that it understands Turkey’s sensitivities,” he added.

Moreover, he said, “Turkey’s air and land forces will move freely in all operation areas [in Syria] and in Idlib, and they will conduct operations if needed. The attack on our soldiers the day before yesterday was a turning point in Syria for Turkey,” Erdogan announced. Erdogan finally added that every attack on Turkish soldiers or its allies will face retaliation, without any warning, regardless of the source of the attack.

This is quite an ultimatum and not a sign of an ease of tensions between Ankara and Moscow⁠—on the contrary it is a clear sign of increasing confrontation.

The Situation In Idlib

When we look at the situation in Idlib, it is obvious that Assad was intent on capturing the last rebel-held parts of the country, since that was the only way to maintain his ultimate control. Moscow could not or did not stop him. The intense bombing reportedly was carried out not only against  radical jihadists⁠—as Moscow and Damascus claimed⁠—but also against innocent civilians. Thus, the operations in Idlib have started a huge refugee flow towards to the Turkish borders and any aid operation has been prevented. More than 40,000 Syrians have reportedly run away from Idlib province in the last week alone and the humanitarian condition is getting worse by the day.

Russia’s Point-Of-View

Even though Erdogan holds Moscow responsible for what is happen, they see it very differently. From the Russian point-of-view, Ankara also has commitments according to the agreements within the framework of the Astana process. Especially with the 2018 Sochi deal under which Turkey and Russia created de-escalation zone in Idlib and started a ceasefire between the moderate opposition groups and the Syrian regime. Ankara, who set 12 observation posts inside Idlib was supposed to segregate the radical jihadist groups such as Tahrir al-Sham from the moderate opposition forces. The ceasefire is only aimed to apply to moderates. Ankara reportedly relocated a good amount of them to Libya and forced others to cut ties with the radicals. Yet the assignment has not been completed according to Moscow since the attacks of the radicals⁠—who are getting stronger inside the zone⁠—are ongoing against Russian and Assad regime targets.

Russia admits the difficulty of the job yet has doubts and believes it is possible that Turkey did not finish it in order to prolong its stay in Idlib to gain leverage over Damascus, and, in addition, to prevent a further refugee influx into Turkey. Therefore, Moscow decided to push Ankara through the intensive bombings, perhaps a little bit harsher than usual, which brought Erdogan on the brink of ending his alliance with Moscow which he identified as strategic only a week ago.

Behind-The-Scenes Scenarios

There are many possible scenarios circulating about the real reason for the crises between Ankara and Moscow.

  1. Washington did not want Moscow to gain further influence in the region so started to support the Syrian rebels in Idlib again and forced the Syrian regime and Russia to initiate an intense operation. The fresh attacks from the opposition forces and favorable statements from Washington further strengthen those claims. Such as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement. “We stand by our NATO Ally Turkey in the aftermath of the attack, which resulted in the death of multiple Turkish personnel serving at an observation post used for coordination and de-escalation, and fully support Turkey’s justified self-defense actions in response.”
  2. Erdogan differentiates the Islamist rebels and did not want to betray the ones that he sees as moderate opposition forces. By preserving status quo in Idlib he wants to force Damascus to find a political solution with them. Thus, Moscow and Damascus started the latest operation to make that plan null and void.
  3. Damascus wanted to get rid of all the opposition elements that were nested in Idlib, to change the balance of power in the province. Therefore with the backing of Moscow, the Syrian government started a devastating operation to force all of them out from the country.
  4. There was tremendous pressure on Erdogan to shake hands with Assad and reach a deal. Yet he refused and apparently insisted on his policy based on regime change in Syria. Consequently, Moscow decided to use harsh military measures to finish the war and send Turkey a strong message.

Are Pro-US Elements In Turkey Gaining The Upper Hand?

The incidents have also stirred up a domestic policy debate in Turkey that the balance of power is changing in favor of pro-US circles while pro-Russia groups are losing ground. The latter groups have been urging Erdogan to make peace with Assad.

A week ago, the former intelligence chief of the army Ret. General Ismail Hakkı Pekin⁠ made a statement that Turkey should let the Syrian regime clear Idlib of the terrorists and gain full control to open to roads and restart trade. “This is the only way to maintain the territorial integrity of Syria and solve the Syrian crises. Ankara should also have negotiations on a political level with Damascus,” he argued. Pekin is an influential figure of the pro-Russian group dubbed as “Eurasians” which is quite dominant in Turkish politics behind-the-scenes, since with their support Erdogan reportedly defeated the previous military coup against him.

A day after Pekin’s statement the official Turkish newspaper of the pro-Russian circles Aydınlık published an article by Ret. Colonel Ihsan Sefa. It contained a veiled threat against Erdogan. “We the nationalists⁠—read as the ones who defend the nation state⁠—have been supporting the Erdogan administration because of its position against the US and EU imperialism and his policy for regional cooperation. If he leaves this position, our support will fade. Therefore, to make peace with Syria should be on the agenda urgently which is creating difficulties for the implementation of Astana and Sochi agreements,” Sefa warned.

Apparently, since Erdogan was strictly against the handshake with Assad he started to look for other supporters and they were more than ready to extend hands to him. The next day Erdogan’s adviser and director of pro-government think-tank SETA, Burhanettin Duran in an article implied that Ankara is losing patience with Moscow and looking for a new policy direction. He called upon the US and the EU to get involved in Idlib conflict.

A Chance For Washington To Get More Leverage In Turkey

Some Western analysts described Erdogan’s outrage at Moscow was a crack on the wall and saw this as an opportunity for Washington to cease Russian influence on Turkey. Perhaps the recent visit of Tod Wolters, NATO’s supreme allied commander for Europe and the commander of U.S. European Command to Ankara was not a mere coincidence.

Taking the current situation under consideration, Moscow’s inability to reconcile Ankara and Damascus would be a big minus for its regional influence that is based on alliances with parties who have conflicting interests. Yet the signs are not encouraging at the moment. Given the strategic interests between Ankara and Moscow, relations will continue yet it is obvious that “the Astana spirit” between Putin and Erdogan has been severely damaged.

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