Amid tensions in Russian-Turkish relations after the Syrian army targeted Turkish military positions in Idlib in north-west Syria, many observers are now hopeful about a summit meeting that will bring the presidents of Turkey and Russia together early next month in the search for a solution to the crisis.
Hopes are hanging on the four-way summit to be attended by the leaders of Russia, Turkey, France and Germany which so far seems to have delayed Ankara’s decision to fight Syrian regime forces if they do not withdraw from the Idlib region by the end of February.
However, on Tuesday Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said there was no full agreement on holding the four-nation meeting on 5 March. Instead, Erdogan said he might meet Russian President Vladimir Putin less formally on the same day.
According to official Russian and Turkish statements, the two-way meeting will discuss developments in Idlib to push back regime forces to battle lines outlined in the Sochi Agreement signed by Russia in September 2018, or keep them in place where they now control more than half the territory that was once under the control of the Syrian opposition.
Turkey announced last week after talks between the two sides that Ankara had informed Moscow in no uncertain terms that it had completed the needed military preparations if the Syrian regime did not withdraw its troops.
Talks between Turkey and Russia were stepped up recently to discuss the situation in Idlib and the military operation Turkey is preparing for. Analysts believe Turkish-Russian relations are very tense over the situation in northern Syria after Turkish soldiers were killed by regime forces during an attack on Idlib and then took control of large swathes of the Aleppo and Idlib provinces.
Turkey sent thousands of its soldiers to Syria to fight alongside the Syrian National Army (SNA) affiliated with the Defence Ministry of the opposition interim government. The SNA is composed of armed revolutionary factions in areas of operations including Derea Al-Furat (Euphrates Shield), Ghosn Al-Zaytoun (Olive Branch) and Nabea Al-Salam (Peace Spring).
The Jabhet Tahrir Syria (Syria Liberation Front), another rebel group, is located in areas under opposition control in Idlib and its suburbs and joined the SNA late last year.
Discussing the preparations and participation of Turkish forces in military operations in Idlib, SNA Spokesman Youssef Hammoud told Al-Ahram Weekly that “the media has reported on all the movements of all the Turkish convoys that entered Syria. They are different types of convoys in terms of quality and combat capabilities to serve tactical targets and strategic plans, allowing Turkey to embark on an all-out.”
Unidentified military jets, most likely Russian, bombed a Turkish military position on 24 February in an air raid over the Idlib countryside, killing at least 13 Turkish soldiers and injuring several others. This was a clear escalation against the Turkish forces in the area. Meanwhile, the opposition’s armed revolutionary factions responded by attacking Russian military positions at Al-Nayrab in Idlib.
Mostafa Sijri, political head of the Al-Moatassem Brigade, one of the main formations in Operation Euphrates Shield, told the Weekly that “our areas are still being bombed and destroyed due to attempts at military expansion. The battle is no longer between us and the regime. We are now at war with the world’s second-strongest military power – Russia. We are also battling Iran, the leader of terrorism in the region.”
Discussing the current combat situation and the readiness of the opposition, Sijir said that “we have completed the necessary preparations to begin an extensive military operation in cooperation with our allies in Turkey. So far, the joint Turkish-Russian operation against regime forces has not started. However, fighting between our forces and the regime’s troops continues.”
“We are preparing for a joint Turkish-Syrian military operation to recover the areas that were taken by the regime recently to force these troops to retreat behind the Turkish observation points. We are committed to what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan signed as co-guarantor of the Sochi Agreement.”
These developments put on the backburner any political solutions as stipulated by international resolutions. The political opposition and the Syrian Constitutional Committee tasked with drawing up a new constitution for the country are certain to lose some of their negotiating power after the armed opposition lost to regime forces in Idlib, according to Nasr Al-Hariri, head of the opposition Syrian Negotiating Committee.
“The regime was forced to take part in the Constitutional Committee, and it does not believe in it. When the regime controlled less than 30 per cent of the country in 2014, it refused to participate in negotiations that would have led to a political solution to save Syria and its people from this calamity. If the military operations continue and the regime takes control of more territory, I believe the Constitutional Committee will lose its impetus,” Al-Hariri said.
“Countries supporting the regime, namely Russia and Iran, only see the political situation through the framework of the Astana and Sochi Agreements, and such false reconciliation cannot be the foundation for a genuine solution.”
Nazir Al-Hakeem, a member of the political wing of the opposition coalition, believes Russia is manoeuvering to gain the most political benefits it can from Turkey.
“On the political level, the military campaign by the regime and Russia is an opportunity to manoeuvre for Russia at Turkey’s expense and gain the most territory that it can beyond the signed agreements. It will likely extort amendments to the Sochi Agreement in return for a ceasefire, such as the administration of the area, the supervision of international highways, joint patrols, observation points and the boundaries of military advances.”
Meanwhile, humanitarian conditions are appalling in Idlib, where hundreds of thousands of refugees – some 900,000 displaced people, according to the UN – are without shelter and are suffering terribly in the bitter cold of winter.
According to Raed Saleh, director of Syria’s Civil Defence (White Helmets) group, conditions are “catastrophic”. “While bombings and massacres against civilians continue in south and east Idlib, as well as west and south Aleppo, the suffering of hundreds of thousands of civilians in overcrowded refugee camps and border towns has been compounded due to harsh weather conditions and heavy rain flooding the refugee camps,” Saleh said.
“Most of these refugees were not able to bring any of their belongings or personal possessions with them. They are suffering alongside local residents in these areas due to horrible living conditions, high prices and an inability to provide food for their families, especially in the light of shortages of aid from the international agencies. These people are also suffering from severe shortages and a lack of medical and educational services, since the war by the regime on the Syrian people destroyed them.”
Abdel-Aziz Al-Shalal, a military expert in the opposition, said that Turkey was “angry at Russia’s non-compliance with the Sochi and Astana Agreements, and therefore it has mobilised troops in the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib in north-west Syria. The troops are waiting for Moscow to change its position on regime forces entering these areas. We are on the edge of the cliff and a stone’s throw away from a major war between the Syrian regime and its supporters on the one side and the Turkish army and what remains of the armed opposition under the umbrella of the SNA, on the other,” he said.
“This imminent battle cannot be halted unless negotiations between Russia and Turkey succeed,” Al-Shalal concluded.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly