Idlib Further Complicates Turkish-Russian Relationship

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by Giorgio Cafiero and Theodore Karasik

On July 26, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks in South Africa on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit. The two met against the backdrop of growing Turkish concerns about power-sharing talks between the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its armed wing, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), and the Syrian regime. Erdogan and Putin were particularly focused on the question of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK)-linked PYD/YPG’s role in Syria’s future and strategies for averting an escalation of violence in Idlib. Today, Turkish, Russian, and Iranian officials are meeting in Sochi, Russia for the tenth round of Syria peace talks.

In the Black Sea coastal city, too, the issue of Idlib will be the most delicate topic of discussion. The extent to which Ankara and Moscow can sort out their differences over this northwestern Syrian province will have significant implications for Turkish-Russian relations at an important time when Ankara’s relations with Washington is reaching a new low over the Andrew Brunson file as Washington threatens Turkey with sanctions unless the American pastor is freed.

Backed by Russia, Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah, and other foreign actors, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) feels emboldened by its recent gains in eastern Ghouta, Homs, much of Daraa and Quneitra. Taking the fight to Idlib, a province of roughly 2.5 million people that the regime lost in 2015, is a priority for Damascus when the opposition is so demoralized. A Syrian regime offensive in Idlib would severely undermine Turkey’s ability to remain a co-guarantor of a de-escalation zone in the northern Syrian province, where the Turks have established a dozen observation points. Officials in Ankara are especially alarmed by reported discussions between the PYD and the regime about the Kurdish militia integrating its militants into the SAA and the PYD’s reported preparations for working with the SAA in an offensive to take back Idlib in exchange for Damascus handing Afrin and Manbij (currently controlled by Turkey and Turkish-backed Sunni Islamist forces and armed groups of Sunni Arab refugees) to the YPG.

For Moscow, such developments pose delicate geopolitical dilemmas that may force Russia to cool its relations with Turkey as it maintains support for the Assad regime. The question of Idlib will likely remain a source of tension between Ankara on one side and Moscow and Tehran on the other as the three capitals seek to advance the Astana process despite their different positions on the Syrian regime’s role in the country’s future. Since Turkey has vowed to leave the Astana format if the Syrian regime wages an offensive on Idlib, it is key for the Kremlin to try and ease the tensions in this part of northwestern Syria.

Turkey’s primary objectives in Syria are to become a shareholder in the country’s future and to contain the YPG as much as possible while preventing the Kurdish militia from establishing a corridor linking the Mediterranean to the Syrian-Iraqi border. From Ankara’s perspective, it is most realistic to achieve these goals via a partnership with Russia. Moscow sees Turkey as a platform for Russia to negotiate with certain rebel groups in an effort to broker a deal that leaves the Ba’ath Party in power albeit with Damascus making compromises with elements of the Turkish-backed opposition.

Although Russia shares the Assad regime’s optimism regarding the SAA’s recent gains, and the Kremlin may well give Damascus the green light to take back Idlib, Moscow has concerns about the regime regaining territory in northern Syria without properly considering Turkey’s security interests. A SAA/PYD/YPG-coordinated effort to capture Idlib would almost inevitably trigger a bloody confrontation with Turkey, which sees the possibility of the Syrian regime or the PKK-linked Kurdish militants taking territory in northwestern Syria as a red line.

Yet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not yet shown any signs of willingness to negotiate with Turkey and the rebel forces that Ankara backs in Idlib. Instead, according to the Damascus regime, the SAA is preparing for an offensive in the northwestern province. The likelihood of the SAA waging operations in Idlib to retake the area is also unsettling to Ankara given that a major clash in Idlib will generate an increased flow of Syrian refugees into Turkey’s Hatay province.

Most likely, Turkey and Russia will not see eye-to-eye on Idlib and the Syrian regime’s ambitions to crush this bastion of remaining rebels mobilizing in the province in preparation for an SAA offensive. Yet whether Ankara and Moscow can carefully navigate their opposing stakes in Idlib while accommodating each other’s legitimate security concerns will heavily influence the future trajectory of Turkish-Russian relations two years after Ankara began its “geopolitical pivot” to Moscow in the aftermath of the failed coup of July 2016.

Theodore Karasik is a senior advisor at Gulf State Analytics. 

Giorgio Cafiero

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO and founder of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. In addition to LobeLog, he also writes for The National Interest, Middle East Institute, and Al Monitor. From 2014-2015, Cafiero was an analyst at Kroll, an investigative due diligence consultancy. He received an M.A. in International Relations from the University of San Diego.