Will Syrian Idlib Be The Final Split Between Russia And Turkey?

Fuad Muxtarlı Analysis 17 February 2020
Will Syrian Idlib Be The Final Split Between Russia And Turkey?

On February 16, ahead of a new round of the Russian-Turkish talks on Syria, the troops of Bashar al-Assad backed by the Russian aviation achieved significant success in the north-western province of Aleppo, capturing most of the rebel-held territories.

On February 17, the Syrian army troops advanced towards a Turkish-controlled airfield as military vehicles reportedly belonging to the Turkish army were spotted near Taftanaz Air Base, south of Taftanaz, Idlib province, news agency said.

Five Turkish soldiers were killed in shelling by the SAA at the same airbase on Monday. “It is the closest point to the airport in Taftanaz where the Turkish troops are located, as you see vehicles, monitoring and communication devices, as well as artillery that supports the militants against us during the past two days,” an officer of the Syrian army at one of the checkpoints in the town of Taoum, less than 5 km off Taftanaz said.

Another SAA officer said Turkish forces have recently attacked them with no casualties reported from the SAA side. “We are here in our land against any Turkish attack or others until the liberation of the last part of the Syrian Arab Republic,” he added. 

Politicians and diplomats of the countries that are systemic external players in Syria did not have a day off on February 15-16. The Turkish president spoke on the phone with U.S. President Donald Trump, Bashar al-Assad met with Speaker of the Iranian parliament Ali Larijani, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

Consequently, Ankara lodged a full list of its claims to Moscow: it demanded a cessation of the Syrian offensive in the Turkish zone of responsibility, which includes the enclave of Idlib and Aleppo, and also accused Moscow of its ongoing support for renegade field marshal Khalifa Haftar. Ankara made it clear that partners do not behave this way.

As expected, the Kremlin categorically rejected it and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov remarked melancholy that Russia has good relations with Turkey, but “this does not mean that we should agree on everything. Full agreement on all issues between any two countries is impossible.” On 17 February, the next round of Russian-Turkish talks will begin in Moscow, we’ll discuss everything there, he opined.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan put forward an ultimatum against Damascus and Moscow, insisting that Assad’s forces must leave the Idlib de-escalation zone and stop the attacks against the Turkish military. Otherwise, Ankara reserves the right to deep-six the deal brokered with Moscow on Syria and use its full combat might. What’s more, for the first time, Erdogan has blamed Russia for the deaths of civilians in Idlib, warning that jets now attacking settlements and it won’t be able to act as freely as earlier, Kommersant business daily writes.

In his phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Erdogan announced that an agreement had been reached that delegates from the Foreign Ministry, the Defense Ministry and intelligence services would hold talks in Moscow.

The two previous rounds of negotiations held in Ankara on Saturday and Monday failed to yield any result, the paper writes. While Moscow and Ankara squabble over who is to blame for the current situation and over the Sochi memorandum, the United States has fully taken Turkey’s side. Russian International Affairs Council expert Kirill Semenov notes that despite his belligerent rhetoric, Erdogan hints that he is not seeking a direct conflict with Damascus. "He signals that he expects to strike a new deal on Idlib with Moscow by the end of February," Semenov said, noting that a demand to withdraw pro-government forces from the de-escalation zone could be viewed as a starting point for bargaining.

In the meantime, while diplomats practice eloquence, with Russian backing, Bashar Assad, relying on Iranian proxies, sought to redraw the political map of Syria. It would soon emerge that there will be nothing to negotiate with Ankara, since the subject of the conflict - the territory of the Turkish de-escalation zone - will completely come under the control of Damascus.

The Syrian dictator did not hide his intention to advance further and bring under control all territories under rebel control at his meeting with Iran’s visiting Speaker Ali Larijani. "The Syrian nation is determined to free all Syrian land from terrorism," he was quoted as saying. However, he fell short of mentioning a word about the fate of population running from his advancing on Idlib territories. Well, the mechanism of this "liberation" is completely debugged and was once again demonstrated over the weekend in the village of Anadan, in the province of Aleppo, Russian aircraft deliver a massive bombing attack, after which Iranian proxies and parts of the government army launched a ground attack.

Moreover, in the Russian-Turkish conflict, treacherous Tehran has finally taken the side of Moscow and Damascus, blaming all the responsibility for what was happening on Ankara. “It is impossible to refuse the Sochi agreements on Syria, negotiations on a Syrian settlement should continue,” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the other day, obviously forgetting about Ankara’s role in diffusing tension between Iran and the USA. “I really want the Turkish government to respect the agreements that we have jointly concluded,” the Iranian president opined.

Actually, the “Astana trio” literally in a month turned into the Moscow-Tehran duo, and this is another “black swan” that has flown to us from the Middle East since the beginning of the year - the second in succession after the assassination of Gen Qassem Soleymani.

The intensification of the U.S.-Turkish contacts, including at the highest level, is no secret to anyone. In a telephone conversation between Erdogan and Trump, the U.S. president expressed concern about the violence in Idlib, and condemned Russia's support for Assad, and even reiterated his opinion that foreign military intervention in the Libyan affairs would only worsen the situation. This is quite an unequivocal proposal for dialogue.

Moreover, on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, Mevlut Cavusoglu held a series of meetings with senior U.S. politicians, who spoke about the same things, about improving the U.S.-Turkish relations that had been seriously spoiled due to steps on both sides.

At this stage, developments between Ankara and Washington are not too worrying for Moscow. While Washington and Ankara agree, while Trump overcomes the resistance of the anti-Turkish lobby - quite a lot of time can pass. And Russia has questions and concessions are necessary to obtain from the Turkish leader right now. Moscow responds to the Turkish list of claims with its own - and it is not shorter.

Neither Idlib and Libya, nor contradictions over the Crimea and the Balkans are at the heart of the current conflict between the two countries, which yesterday called each other strategic partners. These topics are also on the list of Moscow, but not top the list since the main thing is the Kremlin’s concern over Turkey’s policy on diversifying sources of imported gas. On February 14, Russian Gazprom announced that gas supplies to Turkey in 2019 fell by 35.3 percent, or to 15.51 billion cubic meters.

Last year, the consequences of this fall were covered by a disguised large-scale injection of gas into European gas storages, but this year the situation will be completely different - Gazprom’s export decline is going in all directions and this automatically raises the question of the impossibility to fully loading the Turkish Stream.

And then everything else goes on, which only intensifies the Kremlin’s irritation by Turkish partners and personally by President Erdogan. Moscow and Ankara are still trying to find ways of reconciliation, but it is now clear that it will be exclusively temporary and decorative, flaunting an external audience, in nature. The time has come to openly say - the de facto divorce of the two former strategic partners has already taken place. And recent events only increase the risk of an unforeseen conflicts.