Syria Weekly: Idlib could test Turkey's relations with Russia

Syria Weekly: How the onslaught on Idlib could test Turkey's relations with Russia
6 min read
14 June, 2019
Relations between Turkey and Russia could be impacted by the situation in Idlib, where tens of thousands of civilians have fled their homes for the Turkish border.
Thousands of Syrians have fled for the Turkish border [Getty]
After a month of bombing and shelling in the last remaining opposition stronghold in Syria, Turkey and Russia this week agreed another ceasefire to cover Idlib and northern Hama, where relations between Moscow and Ankara have been tested once again.

"At Russia’s initiative, with the mediation of Turkey and Russia, a ceasefire agreement was concluded the Idlib de-escalation zone as of midnight on June 12," announced the Russian Reconciliation Centre on Thursday.

Hopes for peace were premature. Hours later, bombing resumed in Idlib with a Turkish observation post in the northern Syrian province hit by shells fired from regime positions, injuring three soldiers. Turkey said that the ceasefire was not yet secured and warned it could retaliate if attacks on Turkish positions take place again.

"We are working hard with Russia to stop these attacks. It is not possible to say a complete ceasefire has been secured," warned Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. "If the regime continues these attacks, we will do what is necessary."


The ceasefire agreement comes at a critical point in Moscow-Ankara relations, and analysts have told The New Arab that events in Idlib will inevitably impact on the growing - but often volatile - alliance between the two countries.
Developments in Idlib come at a critical point in Moscow-Ankara relations
Turkey is about to receive a delivery of the Russian-made S-400 missile system, which has caused a major rupture between NATO allies Washington and Ankara.

Wary eyes in the opposition province have been looking skywards over the past four weeks, amid a trail of destruction by waves of bombings. Idlib residents will now be looking at the demilitarised zone in southern Idlib to see whether the agreement between Turkey and Russia will hold.

Early signs indicate that the ceasefire - like so many during Syria's war - might not last long and analysts also appear united in their belief that fighting will resume in Idlib.

If Russia and the regime resume strikes in Idlib, it could put Turkish troops based in observation posts in southern Idlib in danger, while Ankara is already entangled in the war due to its connections with some rebel groups in northern Syria.

More bombing will inevitably worsen the already dire humanitarian situation in Idlib, which again could put pressure on Turkey - which hosts around 3 million Syrians - to open its borders or to provide support to refugees.

"One million children are trapped in Idlib under bombardment from the Syrian regime and Russia. Many have been displaced and are living in the open along the Turkish border without adequate food, water or sanitation. The inaction from politicians is staggering," the Syria Campaign said in a statement.

Disagreements between Russia and Turkey over the war in Syria have been common. Turkey has been one of the most consistent backers of rebel groups in northern Syria, while Russia bolstered its support for Damascus by providing air support for the regime from September 2015.

Competition between Russia and Turkey came to a head in November that year, when Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet that had been reportedly bombing Ankara-backed rebel positions in northern Syria, sparking a ferocious war-of-words between President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President Vladimir Putin.
As long as there is land to grab then Syrians will continue to want to grab it and I think Russia also will see the value [in doing the same]
Since the two sides fixed this rupture, relations between Turkey and Russia have gone from strength to strength, while Ankara's ties with its NATO allies have suffered. European criticism over Turkey’s human rights record and migration issues have led to divisions between Ankara and some EU countries.

Turkey's planned purchase of Russia's S-400 has been a source of tension with the US, with Washington insisting the missile system is incompatible with NATO defences.

For months the US has assumed that Ankara will succumb to pressure and cancel the S-400 deal and instead choose the NATO Patriot missile system.

Things took a sharp turn this week when Turkish pilots were frozen out of a training programme for the F-35 fighter jet in the US in connection with the weapons sale. Erdogan insisted that the S-400 was already a done deal.

If Ankara ignores the 31 July deadline to cancel the S-400 sale, set by the US, then this will likely have serious implications on its alliance with NATO. It could also force Erdogan to strengthen ties with Putin, says Yury Barmin, Middle East and North Africa Director at Moscow Policy Group.

"In terms of military cooperation, [the sale] could re-orient Turkey’s industry towards Russia, especially if other co-production projects are launched afterwards," he told The New Arab.

Possible Turkish involvement in a next-generation S-500 system would be one indication that Ankara is considering a long-term collaboration with Moscow on military matters. 

"Russia seems to be willing to partially transfer its technology to Turkey, which the US is unwilling to do," Barmin added.
The statement of President Erdogan is very clear: the S-400 is a done deal
This warmth between Erdogan and Putin might not extend to Idlib, however.

"I think the agreement [in Idlib] will hold for now, now that it's a very important stage in Turkey-Russia, Turkey-US relations," Barmin said.

"Russians will do all they can to reduce the risks. But generally, due to the nature of Idlib and the demilitarised zone around it, I am still sceptical. As long as there is land to grab then Syrians will continue to want to grab it and I think Russia also will see the value [in doing the same]," he added.

The situation in Idlib - where at least 22 hospitals have been damaged or destroyed in bombing of opposition areas - has been a point of debate inside Turkey, said Ömer Özkizilcik, from the Directorate of Security Studies at the SETA Foundation in Ankara.

"The S-400 deal is a highly discussed topic in Turkey and the current escalation in Idlib has boosted the arguments for the people [who want Erdogan] to reject the deal," he told The New Arab.

"Neither Turkey, nor Russia view the two issues related, but only a major escalation in Idlib may poison the Turkish-Russian cooperation which may affect the S-400 deal," he added.

A joint solution to the situation in Idlib will likely foster a warming understanding between the two countries, as they reach a crossroads on whether to retain close ties or deepen their military and political relationship.

"The statement of President Erdogan is very clear: it’s a done deal. The Russian-Turkish cooperation will likely increase further helping both sides to resolve Idlib," Özkizilcik added. 

For the people of Idlib, their fate rests not just with the rebels and regime, but increasingly the power centres in Ankara and Moscow.

Syria Weekly is a new, regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Weekly in your inbox each week, sign up here

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin