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Short- and Long-Term Impacts of the Escalation in Idlib

Point of View, 12.02.2020 Forschungsgebiete

The current escalation in Idlib between Turkish and Russian-backed Syrian forces has two dimensions: the immediate Turkish involvement in Syria and the broader Turkish-Russian rapprochement. An assessment by Salim Çevik.

Clashing Priorities in Syria

As the civil war in Syria moves towards an end, it becomes ever more difficult to postpone resolution of the toughest issues. Each actor has different priorities, which are not easy to reconcile. The Syrian regime wants to regain full control of its territory, while Russia and Iran are particularly keen on eliminating the jihadi elements. Turkey has been forced to relinquish its aim of regime change, and is now on the defensive: it has limited its priorities to blocking any autonomous Kurdish governance structures and preventing large-scale inward movements of refugee.

While Ankara’s desire to prevent Kurdish political autonomy is plausibly reconcilable with the Syrian/Russian wish to preserve Syria’s territorial integrity, this cannot be said for the refugee issue. The regime’s northward advance inevitably creates a flow of refugees towards Turkey, which is amplified by the brutality and vengefulness of the regime forces against the opposition.

Turkey’s use of jihadi factions as proxies throughout the Syrian conflict has further complicated the picture. As the United States and Pakistan experienced in the past, employing jihadi groups as military proxies is like taking the genie out of the bottle and can have long-term disruptive effects.

In Syria, these jihadi groups have become concentrated in Idlib province as they successively lost control of other parts of the country. Although they have proven unable to topple the regime, Turkey both chooses not to give up its patronage of them, and cannot do so. It chooses not to abandon these groups because they have been useful in other conflicts, specifically against the Kurdish YPG and more recently in Libya. But more significantly, Turkey cannot easily renounce its patronage for fear that they might turn against their former benefactor if they feel betrayed.

Caught between a rock and a hard place, Turkey tries to diffuse and postpone the crisis as much as possible. Idlib has been a ticking time bomb for several months already. Numerous Turkish attempts to solve the mounting crisis – such as the Sochi Agreement signed by Turkey and Russia on 17 September 2018 – only postponed the inevitable. Now that the Syrian regime has retaken control of most of the country, Idlib is the only opposition-held enclave left and it is no longer possible to postpone the conflict.

Deescalation of the conflict

While there is no easy solution to the current escalation, it is still possible to contain the crisis. At this stage both sides appear to be applying increasing military pressure. Regime forces have made advances and encircled Turkish military outposts in and around Idlib. Turkey has responded by deployment of additional forces. These escalations can be understood as each side strengthening its hand to gain a better deal. The regime is on the verge of regaining full control of the strategic M4 and M5 highways.

In one possible compromise Turkey would accept the regime’s advances but try to preserve a diminished buffer zone further to the north, both to contain the flow of refugees and to again postpone its problem with its proxies. This solution would also receive support from European countries which, like Turkey, consider preventing new refugee movements their top priority.

Once again, any solution would be temporary and Turkey will continue to face the consequences of its Syrian policy in the near future. Whatever compromise is reached tensions must be eased quickly, as the current escalation can easily run out of control. This could happen simply through human error among the military forces, or more likely, as a result of the jihadi groups’ desire to drag Turkey further into the conflict.

Limitations of Russian-Turkish Cooperation

In a broader perspective, the recent escalation in Idlib highlights the limitations of Turkish-Russian cooperation. In fact, Ankara’s turn to Moscow was dictated more by domestic considerations than geopolitical realities. Erdogan, seeking to tighten his grip on power, found anti-Westernism to be a useful tool to mobilise support for his ambitious political projects.

Despite being on opposite sides in Syria and later Libya, as well as in other regions such as the Balkans and the Black Sea, the two countries – and more significantly the two leaders – manage to sustain their cooperation. Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system expanded the cooperation to the military realm. The two countries also deepened their ties in the energy sector: Russia is Turkey’s primary energy supplier while the TurkStream pipeline enables Russia to bypass Ukraine when supplying European markets. However, as has become clear, despite appearances of increased cooperation strategic rivalries continue to run deep.

This does not mean that the relationship is on the brink of collapse. Erdogan and Putin have both committed too much to it, and have already signalised a wish for reconciliation. However, the revelation of deep strategic conflicts will have a long-term impact. Particularly for Western countries, the recent escalation should remind them once again that Turkey has little to benefit from its drift towards Russia. Contrary to the gloomy picture presented in most Western capitals, the possibilities of a long-term Turkish-Russian alliance are still quite limited. So, although under duress, Turkey might be now more open to influence from the West.

Recent statements of support from Washington can be considered a sign that the United States is already aware of this possibility. And German financial support for Turkish housing projects in “safe zones” in northern Syria is another case. However, the expectations need to remain realistic. Turkey’s pro-Russian foreign policy will not be reversed overnight, as the two leaders will find some kind of compromise amidst mounting pressures. But the general realisation that the Turkish-Russian rapprochement will remain limited will increase the room of manoeuvre for Western countries and for pro-Western factions within Turkey.