Idlib’s fate on the agenda of Erdoğan-Putin upcoming Sochi summit 

Turkish soldiers drinking tea before a military operation in Idlib - 10 February 2020 (Enab Baladi)

Turkish soldiers drinking tea before a military operation in Idlib - 10 February 2020 (Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Amal Rantisi

The Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is due to meet his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in the Russian resort of Sochi on 29 September, the first visit paid by Erdoğan to Russia since March 2020. The two presidents are expected to meet face to face without official delegations to discuss several regional issues, the Syrian file included.   

The situations in Idlib and the rest of the opposition-held areas, which have been witnessing semi-daily shelling by the Russian-backed Syrian regime, will be the main agenda point in the discussions. 

This upcoming visit is the first serious step by the Turkish side, which has been absent from the escalations in northwestern Syria since last June.  

Several international and local humanitarian and human rights organizations have documented the violent acts committed by the regime and Russian forces against northwestern Syrian regions, violating the Moscow “ceasefire” agreement signed between Russia and Turkey on 5 March 2020.  

The “working visit” as described by the Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov on 20 September coincides with many official moves and statements that shaped the general scene, both internationally and locally in the northwestern Syrian regions.

Russia and the Syrian regime demand expulsion of foreign forces 

Erdoğan: “The Assad regime poses threats in the south of Turkey”

The Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has repeatedly released weightless statements demanding the expulsion of foreign forces from Syrian territories. However, the Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad’s visit to New York city to attend the United Nations General Assembly’s 76th session and his meeting with a number of foreign ministers and United Nations officials have strengthened the regime’s position, particularly within the diplomacy wave that the regime has sought to ride to get reincorporated in the international community.      

After the announcement of the Turkish-Russian meeting, initially reported by Reuters on 18 September, citing Turkish officials, the Syrian Foreign Ministry released a statement on 22 of the same month condemning “Turkey’s hostile actions and violations of sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of Syria.”

In a statement to Russian news agency RIA Novosti, Mikdad said, “Turkey should withdraw its troops immediately, and the international community must support Syria’s efforts to liberate the territories Turkey has occupied in the north of the country.” 

Meanwhile, the Turkish newspaper Hurriyet cited Erdoğan on 24 September, saying that “The Assad regime in Syria poses threats in the south of Turkey,” adding that he is expecting different approaches from Russia on Syria as a requirement of solidarity while regime forces continue to be positioned near the borders with Turkey. 

On 14 September, Putin said during his meeting with the head of the Syrian regime Bashar al-Assad in Moscow, “The unauthorized presence of foreign armed forces in parts of Syria is the main problem preventing the reunification of the country.”

Enab Baladi spoke to Syrian researcher and political analyst Nasr al-Yousef, who said that the recent statements between Russia and the Syrian regime on the one hand and Turkey on the other hand before the upcoming meeting between Putin and Erdoğan indicate possible political variables in the near future. 

Al-Yousef linked the latest developments to the results of the summit held between Putin and the United States President Joe Biden in mid-June in Geneva, where the two sides reached understandings that were not disclosed.   

The analyst added that these understandings were supposed to be followed up by experts from both sides to bring them into implementation within a period of up to six months.

In a press conference following the Geneva summit, Biden said that the next three to six months would decide the success or failure of this summit.

On 13 July, Russian news agency, Tass, cited the Russian Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, saying that “One more important outcome of the past days is coordinating Russian and US efforts on ironing out the situation in Syria.”

For his part, al-Yousef said that the planned meeting on 29 September between Erdoğan and Putin would likely tackle the permanent reopening of the strategic international highway (M4) in Idlib, linking Latakia and Aleppo. 

The M4 was included in the Moscow agreement, where it was decided to establish a security corridor six kilometers to the south and six kilometers to the north of the highway; however, the M4 remains unsecured to this day.     

The M4 is of great strategic importance linking the far northeastern regions at the al-Yaroubiya crossing on the Syrian-Iraqi borders with al-Hasakah, Raqqa, Aleppo, Idlib, and the Syrian coast in Latakia governorate, western Syria.

Conflicting forces in Syria have tried to control the M4 highway, especially Russia, hoping to revive the regime’s collapsing economy. 

The Moscow agreement stipulated the opening of the M4 under the protection of joint Turkish-Russian patrols, but civilians from the region staged a sit-in on the highway, which they called the “al-Karama sit-in” in protest against the passage of Russian patrols.  

Is the military option a possibility?

The Russian and Syrian air forces have intensified their strikes on opposition areas to the northwest of Syria, launching, on 25 September, 13 airstrikes on several villages in southern Idlib countryside.

On 22 September, Bloomberg news agency cited Turkish officials saying that Turkey had sent more troops to northwestern Syria as it was preparing for a critical meeting between the Russian and Turkish presidents.

The Turkish reinforcements to northwestern Syria signal Turkey’s determination to carry on blocking assaults on one of the Syrian war’s last front lines held by the opposition, Bloomberg added.

Researcher at the Jusoor Center for Studies, Abdul Wahab Assi, did not rule out the possibility of a new military operation on Idlib by Russia, Iran, and the Syrian regime, but added that the chances of this option’s success have diminished compared to previous operations.

Assi added that Turkey has established defense and blocking lines along the contact lines in Idlib, weakening the regime’s forces’ maneuverability. However, the regime forces and their allies have seized every opportunity to test the possibility of military confrontation.

The regime forces backed by their allies have repeatedly targeted Turkish observation posts in the Jabal al-Zawiya region over the past months. They used laser-guided missiles to increase casualties, according to Assi. 

Assi added, the regime and Russia would not give up testing the possibility of attacking the axes of Jabal al-Turkman, Jabal al-Zawiya, and the al-Ghab Plain without necessarily controlling new regions as the real challenge would be to preserve controlled sites.

The escalation in Idlib dates back to March 2021 and resulted from unresolved issues between Russia and Turkey following the signing of the Moscow agreement. The issues include the resumption of trade and transport, fighting terrorism, determining the fate of Turkish forces in Syria, and the return of refugees.

Assi pointed out that Russia is not satisfied with Turkey’s mere withdrawal of 16 military posts from the de-escalation zone in Idlib because it did not determine the fate of Turkish forces there. He added that Moscow is working on limiting Turkey’s presence north of the M4 highway to the east and west of the Euphrates River. It is also trying to bind Turkey to the 1988 Adana pact signed between Syria and Turkey in terms of armament and adding all understandings on the ceasefire agreement into an additional annex to the Adana pact.

Russia is deeply dismayed by the failure to establish a security corridor to the north and south of the M4 highway and the failure to open commercial crossings between regime and opposition areas. It is safe to say that Russia will not be content with the mere opening of humanitarian crossings in Idlib, Assi said. 

The Syrian regime is a threat to Turkey’s national security

Ankara’s announcement of the military operation “Spring Shield” at the end of February 2020 strongly indicated Turkey’s position towards the Syrian regime as a threat to its national security, Assi said.

The same political attitude was adopted by Erdoğan before the upcoming summit in Sochi, meaning that Turkey will most likely resort to force against the regime in case it targets its posts and military and security interests.

For his part, Turkish affairs and international relations researcher, Mahmoud Allosh, told Enab Baladi that after regaining complete control over Daraa, Russia is seeking to exert political and military pressure on Turkey in Idlib.

According to Alloush, Moscow realizes that the situation of Idlib can not be resolved militarily, as that would lead to a major crisis with Turkey. It also believes that Ankara has a positive role in the success of the political settlement under Russian terms, but at the same time, it seeks to limit the Turkish military influence in the Syrian issue.

Russia is using the “gradual land nibbling” strategy to recapture the remaining opposition areas in northwestern Syria. This strategy proved successful over the past years; therefore, the agreements made by the Russian and Turkish parties regarding Idlib were not effective, Alloush said.

He added that the Russians are seeking a new settlement to recapture other important areas to the regime in Idlib and downsize the Turkish military presence in that region.

Alloush said the Turkish priorities are currently focused on ensuring the effectiveness of the truce in Idlib and reducing the role of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in eastern Euphrates. 

He added, the Russians expect Turkey to make concessions regarding Idlib in return for pressuring the YPG, a formula depending on Erdoğan and Putin reaching a new settlement in Sochi.

As of this September, the number of Turkish military posts in Syria is estimated at 119, spread between nine bases and 110 points in six governorates, a study published on 22 September by the Mediterranean Dimensions for Strategic Studies Center said.

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