Idlib: The beginning of change in Russian-Turkish relations?

Ahmed Eleiba , Sunday 25 Aug 2019

Russian, Turkey
File Photo: Russian servicemen sit in the cabins of S-400 air defense missile systems on Tverskaya Street before a rehearsal for the Victory Day parade, which marks the anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, Moscow, Russia, April 29, 2019. (Photo: Reuters)

The sharp statements between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu last week reflected escalation in the dispute between the two countries in light of on-the-ground developments in Idlib, which is expected to witness more escalation following the launching of the joint military operation between the Russian and the Syrian army troops.

This operation culminated in regaining Khan Sheikhun, the biggest city in Idlib’s southern rural part, and the withdrawal of the Hay'at Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) and Al-Nusra Front, with Lavrov confirming that both sides will continue their military operations to liberate Idlib from the hands of the terrorists.

This is construed as an assertion by Moscow that it will continue its military operations without paying heed to the reaction of Turkey, which insists upon sticking to the Sochi Agreement – signed in 2017 – in refusing to evacuate the observation points mentioned in the agreement.

The manifestations of the dispute are reflected through two variables. The first is the new rules of engagement in the Idlib Battle where the repulsion of a Turkish military convoy – (including 50 military vehicles that were most likely heading to the Turkish Mork Base) – increased the probability of a direct Russian-Turkish military escalation.

The bombing of the column wasn’t in the context of friendly fire, which was revealed in both sides’ statements. Russia, which often leads the air raids in the joint battles with the Syrian army, justified the incident by saying that the reinforcements were in their way to terrorist elements.

On the other hand, Cavusoglu said that the reinforcements were on their way to one of the observation points. Cavusoglu avoided laying the blame on Moscow for the bombing – which reports say were carried out at least six times – and pointed the finger at the Syrian regime and asked it to “stop  playing with fire.”

In this context, it is presumed that Russia wanted to assert the priority of changing the situation in Idlib and regain it on behalf of the regime at the expense of the Turkish military presence.

The first field exercise in Maarrat Al-Nu'man engagement paralleled with another engagement in the diplomatic talk between both sides – Lavrov did not only stop at expressing Moscow’s growing impatience with the increasing terrorism in Idlib and hinting that the Sochi Agreement would not last forever, but he explicitly held Ankara responsible for the increase of terrorists’ control over Idlib of 50 and 90 percent, to quote him.

In addition, he went on to say that the setting up of observation points did not fulfil its mission of destroying the structure of the terrorist organisations according to the Sochi Agreement. This means that Russia was implicitly accusing Turkey for the first time of supporting terrorist organisations in Syria.

Observers say the current clash between Moscow and Ankara comes after an American-Turkish rapprochement following an understanding Washington and Ankara reached concerning the observation points.

This was done after a series of disputes between Ankara and Washington in the light of finalising the S-400 missiles Turkish-Russian contract considered by observers as an indicator of possibilities that a change of alliances may occur once again in the future.

According to observers, there are three probable scenarios in the frame of the ongoing developments in the Idlib Battle. In the near-term, the current developments will reflect on Russian-Turkish relations.

This will be determined by the extent of the parties’ capability to reach an understanding on Idlib and the fate of the Turkish presence there. The midterm will rest on the degree of the Turkish-Russian alliance’s solidity in light of mutual relations’ ramifications.

In light of the current developments, a number of probable scenarios can be envisaged, for instance the continuance of escalation. On the procedural level, Turkey is attempting to find an exit from the dilemma of its bad reputation internationally and regionally regarding its role in supporting terrorism. It is an accusation that haunts it in Syria and other areas.

However, directing an accusation, whether implicit or explicit, from Moscow to Ankara is a different matter. On the battlefield level and according to the Turkish diplomatic talk, Ankara is still determined to keep its military bases in Idlib and will defend them and its troops there. If this trend continues along with repeated Russian targeting of Turkish movements, which may happen, bilateral relations will be affected.     

As for the second scenario, it is the attempt to contain the tension. The two countries may reconsider the crisis, especially as the presidential and military levels have not made any statement regarding the recent developments, so they may call each other to defuse the tension. But it is also probable that Turkey may seek to gain several points by changing its tactics in Idlib, such as driving opposition troops to the front instead of fighters of the HTS, which it controls, and even making way for Russia and the regime to get into a confrontation with the HTS.

This is what the Turkish foreign ministry statements hint at every now and then in the frame of allegations of supporting what is called the “Syrian National Army,” or the armed troops opposing the regime. Thus, it will give itself a chance to keep the manifestations of the Sochi Agreement in ensuring the opposition troops’ presence until reaching political agreement and consequently retaining the observation points it has established there.   

Moreover, there might be an approach to clinch a new contract, as one of the scenarios in the midterm. The two parties might attempt to reach an understanding concerning the establishment of a safe zone in Idlib ultimately, similar to the Turkish-American safe zone east of the Euphrates.

It is a demand which Turkey kept pressing in the first stage of the Syrian conflict, but it did not receive support. It is certain that the matter rests upon the response of Moscow.

Finally, Turkish-Russian relations are undergoing an interim test that will determine the existing alliance’s durability. But it shouldn’t be presumed that this alliance is susceptible to sharp variables, especially since the two parties are capable overcoming it.

However, the most important feature, imposed by this transformation in specific, is that Turkish-Russian relations in Syria are governed by deals and understandings prone to collapse. This pattern proves the alliance parties’ pragmatism in managing their relations.

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