Escalation in Idlib Highlights Existing Risks in Russia-Turkish Cooperation in Syria

Recent developments in Idlib put situation in Syria on escalatory trajectory which might potentially undermine Russia-Turkish relations and change entire conflict flow. While Erdogan threatens to launch a military operation against Syrian Arab Army (SAA) if it doesn’t stop offensive in Idlib, Russian and Turkish diplomats and military are struggling to find a new compromise which will stop violence and prevent further escalation in Syria. At the same time, Washington verbally expresses full support to Ankara eyeing how it can use this situation against Russian-Turkish partnership.

A major question now – Moscow and Ankara be able to again come to terms and settle down Idlib conundrum as it will also test their ability to resolve future crises in the rest of Syria.

Why Russia-Turkey talks on Idlib failed?

Russian diplo-military delegation headed by the deputy foreign minister Sergey Vershinin and Putin’s Syria envoy Alexander Lavrentiev has already held three rounds of talks with their Turkish counterparts on Feb. 8, 10 and 18, but did not manage to strike a final deal.

First of all, absence of a deal on Idlib doesn’t mean that the parties failed to reach it. It might well be that these talks were just preparatory and did not mean to reach a final deal. Moreover, parties agreed to continue the consultations. Secondly, as it proved to be the case in the past Putin and Erdogan prefer to switch to a “manual operation” mode when they need to settle potential crisis and/or escalation (e.g. Idlib 2018, northeast Syria 2019). In that case the two leaders often meet personally to resolve an issue. They already had two phone calls on Feb. 4 and 12. A potential meeting between Putin and Erdogan should not be excluded. In addition to that, after Moscow round of talks on Feb. 8 Turkish foreign ministry said that if the parties are not able to reach a final settlement on Idlib in coming days, Putin and Erdogan talks might take place.

Idlib conundrum

Situation in Idlib keeps escalating as the SAA advances in Idlib, takes full control over strategic M5 highway, encircling several Turkish observation posts, and Ankara continues to amass its military in the province, occasionally launching retaliation attacks on Syrian army positions.

According to some estimates Ankara has already sent some 9,000 troops to Idlib and over 1,000 units of military hardware to bolster its presence. Turkey also sends reinforcement to the armed groups it supports in Idlib in a bid to stop advancements of SAA and to increase its deterrence capabilities. Over the last weeks 13 Turkish personnel were killed in this stand-off while according to Turkish defense ministry Ankara targeted over 170 SAA objects killing over 170 Syrian army soldiers. So far, it is the most serious exchange of attacks between Turkey and Syria since the onset of the civil war, however, direct clashes between Syrian and Turkish military was avoided.

Although escalation in Idlib is a very dangerous development, it comes as no surprise because the parties were on the “collision course” for some time already. In February Russian foreign ministry reported deaths of Russian and Turkish military servicemen in Idlib which happened in January 2020 – already an indication of rising tensions. Moreover, the parties already had concerns to each other regarding bilateral agreements and their implementation which are not new in substance.

Both Russia and Turkey accuse each other of being incapable to implement 2018 Idlib agreement for quite some time. For a year and a half Moscow says Ankara has been failing to separate moderate armed groups from radicals; it did not pull out militants and heavy weapons from demilitarized zone which allowed them to continue attacks on the Russian and Syrian objects, including on Khmeymim military base; M4 and M5 highways which connect Aleppo with Latakia and Damascus were not reopened as it was stipulated by the agreement.

In return, Ankara blames Moscow for not respecting Idlib ceasefire as SAA offensive continues causing massive displacement of people, and for not being able to prevent Assad from attacks not only on Syrian rebels but also on Turkish military.

Current differences

In recent days SAA did not stop its offensive along M5 and M4 highways in Idlib and Aleppo provinces despite continued buildup of Turkish troops in proximity to those roads. At the same time, Russia refused to accept Ankara’s demand to withdraw SAA from recently recaptured areas. Judging by these developments, prospective deal on Idlib will be exactly about the new status of M4 and M5 highways and their re-opening. Russia wants these two most important and strategic highways in the country to be under Damascus control as they are essential for Syria’s economic revival and reconnecting country’s east with the coast and two major cities – Aleppo and Damascus.

In return, Turkey wants to secure its military presence in the remaining parts of Idlib and in the areas it controls in north Aleppo (after first two military operations in Syria) and east of Euphrates. By amassing its troops in Idlib Turkey tries to escalate to de-escalate in order to enhance its negotiation position, strike a compromise with Russia and make a showcase that it will stand for its interests in Syria.

Although the two parties have serious differences, there are serious arguments against large-scale escalation in Idlib.

Why Turkey and Russia would like to de-escalate?

First, Turkey has quite limited leverage on Russia to push its demand – which is complete withdrawal of SAA from the areas it took in the recent months.

Second, Turkey, as well as Russia, doesn’t want major military escalation in Idlib as it will only increase refugee flow in the province and, hence, will increase burden for Turkey and international pressure on Damascus and Moscow. Refugee issue has already become a big domestic problem for Ankara and it doesn’t want to make it worse.

Third, Turkey doesn’t want escalation with Russia. Ankara won’t risk its relations with Moscow over Idlib, which means it needs to find a compromise. Moreover, Russian military personnel is on the ground. Turkey is unlikely to risk direct clash with the Russians. In addition to that, Moscow also doesn’t want to lose Ankara as a partner in Syria and in the broader region, as well as it doesn’t want more tensions between Ankara and Damascus (it wants them to re-engage). Both Russia and Turkey need each other in Syria: Ankara still controls certain armed groups, has military foothold in Syria, hosts 3.5 mln refugees, and is a Syrian neighbor. Moscow still controls Syrian air-space, supports SAA and communicates with Syrian Kurds. Both sides loose if a major break up happens.

Four, Turkey is unlikely to spend more money and resources on a new military operation in Idlib as it doesn’t want complications in northeastern Syria and Libya if military escalation in Idlib continues. In the end, northeastern Syria and Kurdish issue is more important for Turkey in the long-run. And finally, Russia controls Syrian sky over Idlib. Turkey will be reluctant to use airpower which makes ground operation harder and costlier to conduct.

This is why the two will try their best to settle the issue avoiding further military escalation.

Existing risks

Together with that Turkey still has limited set of tools it can use to pressure Russia. First, the current escalation underlines existing risks for Russia-Turkey cooperation on Syria. Ankara can continue sabotaging Astana format which Moscow praises as a vivid and the most successful example of regional cooperation for conflict management. Astana platform is a sort of litmus test for abilities of Russia, Turkey and Iran to negotiate and find compromises. Without Turkey Astana format will definitely lose its significance.

Second, Ankara may try to re-engage with the US and Kurds in Syria which may seriously affect Russian posture and policy. If Moscow pushes too hard and Ankara sees that there is not enough pay off from its dealings with Russia the option of re-engagement with the US is still there. However, visit of US Syria envoy James Jeffrey to Turkey on Feb. 12 did not change much. Anyways, potential re-engagement with both forces – the US and Kurds – might bring a risk of forming anti-Damascus/anti-Russia alliance (even situational) which may force Moscow to change its policies in Syria.

And third, Turkey may stay in northern areas of Idlib province creating de-facto occupation zone which it will use in its bargains with Moscow and Damascus. Its significant military presence there will decrease a chance of direct military confrontation with the Syrian army.

That said, there are still more restraining factors at place which might navigate Russia and Turkey into de-escalation path. However, the key remaining questions are will Moscow be able to control Assad’s behavior in Idlib and elsewhere, and what are the limits to which Moscow can push Ankara in Syria.

So far previous escalations in Syria were successfully managed by Putin and Erdogan switching to “manual operation” mode. However, this cycle of crisis may open up new cracks and limitations in Russia-Turkey cooperation in Syria.

What’s next?

Judging by the recent developments, it is very likely that Russia-backed SAA will continue to expand its control over Idlib province in a bid to retake M4 highway. It looks increasingly like Moscow does not have much appetite to retake entire Idilb province. Its priority is two reopen two most important highways in the country – M4 and M5 which are essential for Syrian economic revival.

Turkey on its part will continue increase its military presence in Idlib to enhance its deterrence capabilities and to exclude further offensive of SAA towards Turkish borders. Ankara may want to use north Idlib to establish their safe-zone for the displaced people in order not to let them inside Turkey. Ankara’s recent aggressive rhetoric towards Damascus largely targets its domestic audience. Erdogan needs to showcase his resolute approach and demonstrate strength.

This is why, in the end, large-scale escalation in Idlib is unlikely and break up of Russia-Turkish cooperation on Syria is too early to expect. Moscow and Ankara will try their best to strike a new Idlib deal which will reflect new realities on the ground: new zone of SAA control along M5 highway and a new zone of Russian military police control which will continue to be a disengagement force between Turks and Syrians. Apart of Idlib, Russia and Turkey have three more issues to resolve which will require very close coordination – north of Aleppo areas taken during Olive branch and Euphrates Shield operations, Turkish buffer zone in northeast Syria and Kurdish issue. This is why, it is unlikely that the two are ready to scarify their cooperation on Syria just because of Idlib.