Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened military strikes against Syrian regime troops in Idlib and Aleppo if they do not withdraw before the end of February to the boundaries outlined in the Sochi Agreement signed between Russia and Turkey.
This would mean their withdrawing from all the areas the regime has taken in recent weeks in north-west Syria, especially the Damascus-Aleppo highway.
In response to Erdogan’s demands, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad said that Erdogan “wants to take control of all of Syria” and accused “enemies of the Syrian people” of attempting to “protect terrorists”.
As a result of recent attacks by regime forces supported by Russia against opposition factions in north-west Syria, the Turkish army has begun to step up the deployment of troops and armoured vehicles as well as additional observation outposts in the area to obstruct the advance of regime forces.
Syrian forces were not stopped by the Turkish military presence, however, and they bombed Turkish observation outposts and injured or killed Turkish soldiers. Ankara has threatened serious retaliation, with Erdogan retorting that regime forces “will pay a steep price”.
This war of words coincides with disputes between Moscow and Ankara. Turkish officials have been surprised by Russia’s persistence in supporting the advance of regime forces in the north-west of Syria, while Iran has also provided support for the attack.
The Russians were also surprised by Ankara’s determination to halt the advance of the Syrian troops. But Turkey views Idlib as vital to its national security, wanting to control the risk of a possible influx of refugees across its borders. Both Russia and Turkey have accused each other of not upholding the Sochi Agreement, and more seriously for Turkey, the Russian army did not stop the Syrian army from killing Turkish soldiers.
The developments in north-west Syria are due to a quarrel between Russia and Turkey regarding the Sochi Agreement and the difference between Russia’s approach to its influence in the region and Turkey’s standpoint on national security. The dispute has been demonstrated by Turkey’s troop reinforcements as if preparing to invade Syria and its direct involvement in supporting Syrian opposition groups. Meanwhile, the Russian army has been contributing air and land support to regime forces.
Moscow claims Ankara has not implemented two articles in the Sochi Agreement pertaining to separating moderate opposition groups and terrorists and solving the problem of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front. Russia also insists on opening the two international thoroughfares (Aleppo-Damascus and Aleppo-Latakia) and ending attacks on Russia’s Hmeimim military base in Syria.
Meanwhile, Turkey asserts that Syrian regime forces must return to their previous positions. No progress has been made between the two viewpoints, and the only breakthrough has been that both sides have agreed on holding a new round of talks in Moscow before the end of the month.
But agreeing to meet has not stopped the war of words between the two sides. Erdogan has once again threatened retaliation in response to any attacks on his soldiers and has declared four red lines: the return of government forces to Sochi military lines before the end of the month; resorting to the use of Turkish firepower to force this if the deadline passes; stopping air strikes on residential areas in Idlib; and retaliating with deadly air strikes in response to any attacks on Turkish soldiers.
Syrian commentator Saeed Moqbel told the Weekly that “the anticipation was that Russia would be more flexible in the face of Turkey’s doggedness, in order to avoid a clash between its two allies, the regime on the one hand and Turkey on the other. However, Moscow was stubborn in talks with Turkey in continuing battles to take control of the two international highways, presenting a new map of the ‘de-escalation zone,’ and terminating the issue of HTS by Turkey.”
“These demands were initially rejected by Ankara, but it seems that Turkey may be responsive to Russia on HTS since Erdogan and Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar have said they will deal with any Syrian opposition groups, especially radical ones, ‘that obstruct a permanent ceasefire deal.’”
Observers expect HTS to dissolve within days to avoid any further embarrassment of Turkey and eliminate the pretext used by the regime and Russia to justify their repeated attacks on Idlib. It is unknown, however, if these predictions will be realised in fact.
Despite the military and diplomatic escalation by Turkey against the regime and its forces in Idlib, the facts on the ground are in favour of the regime forces due to their advances on the ground under Russian cover. These troops will soon be able to besiege all the opposition groups that remain in the area.
Meanwhile, the US has demanded an end to the “barbaric” attacks on cities in north-west Syria and to allow humanitarian aid to be delivered. Washington has blamed the regime, Iran, Hizbullah, and Russia for escalating attacks against residents of the area, and it has promised to prevent the Al-Assad regime from rejoining the international community until it abides by all the stipulations of UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
These include a ceasefire across the country, including in Idlib. The position of the US is what Turkey needs in its efforts to neutralise Russia’s position.
Turkey is focused on the regime crossing the red line of killing Turkish soldiers, sending a message to Moscow that this will not be tolerated and that the arrival of waves of refugees on its borders is a danger it cannot contain.
If Russia cannot put pressure on the Al-Assad regime, this means it does not have the right to object to retaliation against the regime, Turkey is claiming. Ankara needs more tangible support from Washington, but it is not clear if the US would be willing to provide more than words in support of Turkey in its ongoing escalation with the Al-Assad regime and Russia.
The future of north-west Syria is contingent on measures taken by Erdogan, the willingness of Russian President Vladimir Putin to take a risk with a NATO member, and how much support the US is willing to provide Turkey beyond just words.
The upcoming talks between Turkey and Russia will shed light on whether the honeymoon between Ankara and Moscow is now over, or if the two will craft a new version of the Sochi Agreement that better protects Turkish interests.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.