Idlib has been a Test for Erdogan-Putin Relationship

 

Photo source: Moscow Times

By Naveed Qazi | Editor, Globe Upfront

The diplomatic relations between Putin and Erdogan took an ugly turn in February 2020, when thirty-three Turkish soldiers were killed in a single attack by the Syrian army. The total losses for Turkey that month went over fifty. The fear of war had already displaced around seven hundred thousand Syrian civilians between December 2019 to February 2020, until a new escalation began.

Erdogan’s defense minister, Hulusi Akar charged that the attack had taken place despite the fact that “the location of Turkish troops had been coordinated with Russian officials in the field.” His communications director, Fahrettin Altun, believed Moscow had the responsibility to prevent such assaults by the Assad regime in accordance with the Astana and Sochi accords between the two countries. Akar’s claim, surprisingly, was specifically rejected by the Russian defense ministry. The Russian foreign minister Lavrov, in a response, ascertained that “Russia cannot prohibit the Syrian army from executing the demands written in United Nations resolutions, which call for an uncompromising fight against terrorism in all its forms.”

As Erdogan had called Putin in February 2018, it reflected that Erdogan wanted to solve everything diplomatically, for the time being. It must have been one of his most difficult conversations. Although, this move had been one of his contradictions, too, as he had informed his Russian counterparts after the attack that all Syrian positions were legitimate targets, thereby letting an escalation of a proxy war, which was all in all unpredictable.

Akun, by claiming to have killed, over two hundred Syrian troops, gave the observers a stark reminder that Turkey was not interested in quitting the war in Idlib anytime sooner. ‘Erdogan’s military moves are being made is in accordance with what he has been consistently characterising as his forward defense strategy against external enemies unhappy with Turkey’s growing role in its region and beyond,’ wrote Bulent Aliraza in an Oped for Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The war in Syria poses a lingering, massive humanitarian threat to Turkey, as Syrian refugees keep on cumulating at Turkish borders. It, at the same time, also helps Erdogan to stir nationalistic sentiments during economic difficulties. He once said: ‘if we are unable to protect our country’s rightful place in the changing regional power dynamics, they will transform our life here into a prison. Every struggle we avoid today in Syria, Libya, the Mediterranean, and our region will return to us with a heavier toll tomorrow. That is why we characterize it as a new war of independence for our country and nation.’

Having been obliged to host close to four million Syrian refugees in Turkey, as a consequence of the failure of the opposition campaign Erdogan backed against Assad, since 2011, it resulted in a massive financial burden for him of over $40 billion according to his own estimates. Erdogan’s main priority, since the 2020 Balyun airstrikes, has been to prevent a further influx of refugees. 

Putin, in retaliation, to Turkish aggression had also issued a statement, where he was concerned about the extremist groups operating on Syrian soil. This resounding stance of Putin, resulted as a bitter blow for Erdogan.

Hence, his metamorphic hard line on Idlib should not have come as a surprise to Erdogan, as the two sides had disagreed from the beginning in their interpretations of the Sochi ceasefire agreement they had signed in September 2018. 

Erdogan has also been supplying additional military equipment to opposition groups and encourages them to mount counterattacks parallel to inserting thousands of Turkish soldiers into Idlib.

Ankara had also chosen to interpret the Sochi document as a binding Russian commitment to prevent the Assad regime from attacking its opponents in their last remaining military fortifications in Syria. The agreement also intended to preserve the status quo in Idlib, supervised by observation posts, which Turkey was allowed to establish along the line separating the two sides. Moscow saw it as a contractual Turkish obligation to help combat terrorism by curbing ‘radicals’ in Idlib.

The upper hand the extremist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham had gained in Idlib at the beginning of 2019 against more moderate elements allied to Turkey had given the Russians the ideal excuse to continue to carry out deadly bombing runs against opposition targets. It is now clear that Damascus was focused in 2019 largely on consolidating its control in other areas it had gradually seized from the opposition, which was eventually pushing surviving fighters and civilians into Idlib. Putin was content, at that time, to look beyond his differences there with Erdogan, and to focus on cooperation in other areas.

Erdogan’s desire to broaden the diplomatic equation by bringing the German and French leaders into the Idlib conversation also testifies to his desire to gain additional leverage in his trial of strength with Putin. His recognition of the importance of their concern over refugees has been confirmed by his decisions.

When it comes to United States, then President Trump had assured him support, but he never got it, deepening his ever more pessimisms. The Biden administration, while supposedly still reviewing Syria policy, prioritises a minimalist approach focused on fighting the Islamic State and humanitarian assistance. 

The emergency consultations on Idlib at NATO and the UN Security Council have also failed to produce the kind of international support Erdogan would have liked. It seems likely that on Idlib Erdogan will have to settle for an interim compromise with Putin. The most the Russians may be prepared to offer Turkey at this stage is a ‘safe zone’ in the western part of Idlib close to the Turkish border, where the refugees have fled. This was apparently suggested in a map that was given to the visiting Turkish delegation in Moscow, which Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu confirmed in 2020, which Turkey had not accepted.W

The root causes of their disagreement stem from their opposing positions relating to the Syrian civil war that remain unresolved, and will undoubtedly provide reasons for continuation of the conflict.

If Erdogan loses his nerve, he might even seek to recover lost credibility by escalating from artillery support and drone strikes to direct major engagement by Turkish troops with Assad’s forces anytime. To counter this, Putin’s balancing act continued in September 2021, when two political heavyweights, met in person again in Sochi, Russia, where they talked for atleast three hours.


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