Collision Course: Idlib Tests Russia-Turkey Relations

Recent Critical Escalations Threaten to Damage Delicate Relations Between Moscow and Ankara

The final stretch of Syria’s nine-year-old civil war in the northwestern province of Idlib is experiencing a deepening humanitarian crisis as government troops have been pushing to take control of two strategic roads linking the government-controlled Aleppo to Damascus and Latakia.  As the Russia-backed Syrian regime battles to retake this last major enclave from the Syrian opposition, a mass exodus of 700,000 refugees have fled towards Turkey’s borders since December 1, according to the United Nations. Turkey, the main backer of the opposition in Syria, has desperately tried to convince Moscow to halt Syrian regime’s offensive, but to little avail. Ankara wants to push back against the Syrian offensive and prevent a new wave of Syrians that could force it to open its borders once again, which would be economically difficult and politically catastrophic, and if possible, protect Turkish-backed Sunni militias until a final settlement in Syria is reached.  Over the past two weeks, the Turkish military has been mobilising in large numbers in northern Idlib and is now actively fighting the Syrian army, aiming to recapture key towns along the M4 and M5 highways that cut across the province. But the offensive took a dramatic turn when forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad killed eight Turkish military and civil personnel in air and artillery attacks. The same day, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan paid a significant visit to Ukraine to sign a deal assisting the Ukrainian army with funding. In a clear rebuke to President Vladimir Putin, Erdogan raised an anti-Russian nationalist slogan there, “Glory to Ukraine,” referring to the country’s independence fight following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and denounced the Russian annexation of Crimea. These potentially critical escalations raised the possibility of open confrontation between Moscow and Ankara, threatening to damage the delicate relations between Moscow and Ankara.

Tensions escalated further on Wednesday. In one of the strongest signs yet that Syria is placing relations between Moscow and Ankara under increasing strain, the Kremlin, the Russian Foreign Ministry and the Russian Defence Ministry all accused Turkey of bad faith. The Kremlin said Turkey had failed to deliver on a promise to neutralise militants in Idlib, something it called unacceptable. Ankara was supposed to eradicate the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS). Instead, HTS made inroads into strategic areas near Syria’s main M4 and M5 highways.

The same day, the Russian Foreign Ministry reminded Ankara its forces were in Syria without the blessing of the Syrian government, and the Defence Ministry said Turkish troops were seriously aggravating the situation on the ground in Idlib. The Defence Ministry also flatly rejected an allegation made by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan who said Russian forces and Iran-backed militias were "constantly attacking the civilian people, carrying out massacres, spilling blood".

Despite supporting opposite sides in the conflicts in Syria, the two countries have up until now put their differences aside to collaborate for a political solution to the war. Frustrated with US cooperation with Syrian Kurds, who Turkey considers terrorists, Ankara stuck a deal with Russia and Iran in 2017, called the Astana process, to create a new order in Syria. Along with Sochi, these Syria-focused processes also helped reshape Turkish-Russian relations. Signed almost three years ago, they aimed to de-escalate the fighting in rebel-held northwestern province of Syria to prevent any assault from the regime forces in the region. Turkey set up observation posts to monitor them under a demilitarized zone. Turkey and Russia also struck a cease-fire earlier in January for Syria.  Both countries also have a shared interest in defying U.S. influence in Syria.

Edrogan and Putin are also said to have a close relationship, often referring to other another as “a dear friend” when they meet. Turkey depends on Russia to prevent an even larger wave of refugees from heading towards the Turkish border, to limit the role of Kurdish militias and their political affiliates in talks on Syria’s future, and to meet its reliance on imported gas. Turkish officials have long claimed that the rapport with Moscow protected their country’s interests in a troubled neighbourhood. Yusuf Erim, a foreign-policy analyst for the state-owned broadcaster TRT World, said that it was important for Turkey to “diversify [its] relations with superpowers” in a shifting global order. 

Ankara “really cannot afford to alienate Russia,” said Asli Aydintasbas, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations told the Financial Times. Ayintasbas predicted that the two countries’ ties would survive the latest tensions over Idlib. “Turkey is not a Russian vassal,” she added. “But it has become too beholden to Moscow to snap out of this relationship at the first crisis.”

That view was echoed last week by Erdogan himself, who said that Turkey had “many serious strategic initiatives” with Russia and promised to “sit down and talk everything through, without anger”. Citing a Turkish proverb, he added: “Because he who stands up with anger will sit down with regret.”