MOSCOW (Pakistan Point News / Sputnik - 22nd February, 2020) Russia and Turkey have different views on how to resolve the ongoing crisis in Syria's Idlib, which has escalated in recent weeks amid increased fighting and a looming humanitarian crisis, although it is still possible for Moscow and Ankara to find common ground, experts told Sputnik.
Idlib, and parts of the neighboring provinces of Latakia, Hama, and Aleppo, comprise one of four de-escalation zones established by Russia, Iran, and Turkey in May 2017 during talks in the Kazakh capital of Nur-Sultan (then Astana). In 2015, large pockets of the region fell under the control of militant rebels belonging to the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham terrorist organization (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra, banned in Russia).
The other three de-escalation zones are under the control of Syrian government forces, which launched an offensive on December 1 to reclaim rebel-held territory in Idlib. This has led to clashes with Turkish forces, which maintain observation posts in the de-escalation zone.
Syrian government forces shelled a Turkish observation post on February 3, killing seven military personnel and one civilian contractor. Turkey has since responded with a number of retaliatory strikes. Most recently, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on Friday that a further 150 Syrian soldiers have been killed by Turkish forces.
The Turkish president two days prior stated that his country could launch a full-scale military operation in Idlib "at any minute." Significant amounts of military equipment and troops have been sent to Turkey's border with Syria, in preparation of further escalation.
There are competing aims in the Syrian conflict. Russia has thrown its weight behind Bashar Assad's government, in order to defeat terrorist cells and bring stability to the war-torn country. Turkey's operations in Syria were previously limited to cross-border monitoring and skirmishes with the People's Protection Units, a Kurdish militia. However, Turkey appears to be taking a more active role in the conflict.
Tensions are rising across the region. The Russian Ambassador in Ankara recently stated that he has faced threats due to growing anti-Russian resentment in Turkey due to the escalation of violence in Syria. Both parties are currently searching for a way out of the crisis, with two options seemingly on the table, according to Gareth Jenkins, a nonresident senior research fellow with the Joint Center Silk Road Studies Program and Turkey Center at the Institute for Security & Development Policy.
"There are two ways to resolve the situation in Idlib: one is through military action and the other is through negotiation. Military action requires capability and political will. Regardless of whether or not their criticisms are justified, none of the countries which are criticizing the actions of the Syrian government in Idlib have both the capacity and the political will to impose a military solution in Idlib. Most have neither," Jenkins told Sputnik.
With the prospect of further high-level talks on Idlib ahead, world leaders, diplomats, and experts are assessing the sincerity of Erdogan's threats, whether or not bilateral tensions could heighten further, and where Moscow and Ankara can find common ground.
On Thursday, Turkish opposition lawmaker Ozturk Yilmaz stated that the president was not bluffing and that his rhetoric risks triggering a regional conflict that could draw in a number of other nations, including Russia and Iran.
Amalendu Misra, a senior lecturer in the Department of politics, Philosophy and Religion at Lancaster University, suggested that Erdogan is attempting to gauge Russia's reaction, and is not prepared for the humanitarian crisis that would ensue from a military operation.
The senior lecturer added that Russia can still have a significant amount of influence over Turkey's next step given Ankara's strained relationship with Washington over the purchase of Russian-made S-400 missile systems.
"Ankara is power posturing in Idlib and it can continue on that path provided Moscow allows it to do so. A hardline Russian position can in fact stop Turkish position on Idlib. Ankara cannot afford to antagonize Moscow especially at a time when it is recuperating from a strained relationship with Washington. So, it is advantage Moscow, if it is serious about reining in Ankara," Misra added.
"The hope is that there will be no major military campaign from Turkey as it would only increase the suffering in Idlib. But there is a risk that Erdogan's rhetoric will create an irreversible momentum and that he will push ahead with an operation for fear of losing face," Jenkins stated.
Birol Baskan, a non-resident scholar at the Washington-based middle East Institute, cast doubt on whether Erdogan was bluffing, but was non-committal as to the sincerity of the president's threats of military action.
"Erdogan seems very serious about it. He might be bluffing, but I am not sure. He is a risk-taker and often wins on the risky bets he makes. With Trump's support, he might be contemplating that Putin will give in to his demands: of course, without Russian support, Syria is no match for Turkey militarily," Baskan told Sputnik.
Erdogan stated on Friday that a four-party summit involving France, Germany, Russia and Turkey could be held in Istanbul on March 5 to ease tensions and decide the path forward in the Syrian province, potentially showing the desire for a diplomatic, rather than a military solution.
RUSSIA, TURKEY FACE OFF IN IDLIB
This past week, Russian and Turkish diplomats held talks on the Syrian conflict in Moscow. However, after the meetings, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that both parties failed to come to an agreement.
Maria Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said on Wednesday that Turkey's support of militant groups in Idlib could lead to a further escalation in violence. Russia's center for Syrian reconciliation has shared a 43-second video appearing to show a Turkish artillery unit providing support to armed militants in the region.
The rhetoric between both countries has become more aggressive, and it appears that at least in the short-term, both parties have mutual goals that are irreconcilable, Jenkins stated.
"Ankara and Moscow currently have mutually irreconcilable goals for Idlib. In the medium to long-term, one of them is going to have to back down. And I do not think it is going to be Moscow," the scholar stated.
While admitting that an agreement seems far away, Huseyin Bagci, a professor of international relations at the Middle East Technical University (METU) in Ankara, stated that Turkey does not seek conflict with Russia.
"As the situation is now there is no solution in Idlib. Then both Russia and Turkey have different views on the solution. The talks in Ankara and then in Moscow did not bring any concrete results. But as Turkish Defense Minister [Hulusi] Akar said ... the search for a solution will continue and Turkey does not want to see any conflict between Turkey and Russia," Bagci stated.
"An urgent summit between Putin and Erdogan is necessary in the next week. To eliminate the remaining terrorists is a common concern for all sides there. But the worst-case scenario would be any military confrontation between three countries," Bagci stated, revealing one common interest that both parties have: defeating terrorism in Syria.
Putin and Erdogan held a phone call on Friday afternoon, with the aim of finding mutual dialogue to ease bilateral tensions and work towards finding a peaceful solution in Idlib. The Russian president expressed his concerns regarding the continued aggression of terrorist militants and the need for a ceasefire. The leaders confirmed that high-level contacts would continue.
With proposals for a four-party summit in Istanbul in the first week of March and further high-level talks between Ankara and Moscow, the dialogue will continue. However, the aims of Moscow and Ankara may remain the same.
"It seems to me that Russia wants an unconditional Syrian control over Idlib and that Turkey does not want that. Given that the countries hold such polar opposite positions, it seems unlikely that they can reach a definitive agreement," Baskin told Sputnik.
According to Gareth Jenkins, Syrian government forces could play a vital role in calming tensions in the region, as well as preventing a humanitarian crisis, which is perhaps Ankara's number one concern. Turkey currently hosts over 3.5 million Syrian refugees, according to figures published by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
"It is still possible for Ankara and Moscow to reach a short-term agreement in Idlib. Erdogan's priority is preventing another massive influx of Syrian refugees into Turkey. Damascus could be prepared to pause its offensive to consolidate its recent gains, such as reasserting its control over the M5 highway," Jenkins stated.
Since early February, Syrian government forces have made significant gains in Idlib and Aleppo provinces and have recaptured the cities of Ma'arat al-Nu'man and Saraqib. The latter is situated on a crucial intersection of two key highways connecting Aleppo with Latakia and Damascus respectively. Only a small section between Damascus and Aleppo remains blocked by Turkish forces.
In order to build Syria's future, international cooperation will be vital. Putin on Friday reiterated his commitment to the Sochi agreement, which established joint Russian and Turkish patrols and a designated safe zone on the Turkey-Syria border.
"Engagement of a joint multinational task force could address the remaining challenges on the ground. Such an outfit will not have the legal backing but can be very effective in terms of intelligence sharing, coordinated military offensive and greater transparency over command control," Amalendu Misra stated.
Only through cooperation will the conflict's stakeholders be able to resolve their issues. There are a huge number of moving parts in Idlib and Aleppo, and balancing the competing aims of Syria's government, Russia and Turkey will be challenging. However, despite the escalation, Ankara and Moscow are prolonging the dialogue, showing their desire to solve the issues in the negotiating room, and not on the battlefield.