Erdogan fails to end Idlib fighting despite plea to Putin

Russia wants the US to withdraw from Syria and is concerned that any arrangement with Turkey for a “safe zone” could cement the presence of US troops in the country.
Saturday 31/08/2019
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands during a news conference in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, August 27. (Reuters)
A shattered deal. Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shake hands during a news conference in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, August 27. (Reuters)

ISTANBUL - Problems for Turkey in Syria are piling up following a failed attempt by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to ask Russia for help to stop a Syrian government offensive in the embattled province of Idlib.

During a visit to Moscow on August 27, Erdogan told Russian President Vladimir Putin it was unacceptable that Syrian forces were “raining death on civilians from the air and land under the pretence of battling terrorism.”

Troops of Syrian President Bashar Assad have been pushing through southern parts of Idlib in an offensive to return the last rebel-held province in the country to government control. Neighbouring Turkey, which has taken in 3.6 million Syrian refugees and supports some rebel groups in Idlib, is concerned that the fighting could send hundreds of thousands of additional refugees over the border.

The United Nations said more than 500,000 people have been uprooted since the Syrian Army began its offensive in April, most of them escaping deeper into the rebel bastion and towards the Turkish border. The White Helmets, a Syrian relief group, said the number of displaced people had topped 1 million.

Hundreds of Syrians gathered at a closed border crossing to Turkey. Some reports said they protested Turkey’s failure to protect them from the advance of Syrian troops and that Turkish border guards fired into the air to stop them. There was no comment from Turkish authorities.

An agreement hammered out by Erdogan and Putin last year was supposed to stabilise the situation in the jihadist-run province but the deal has been shattered by intensifying fighting.

Putin said Turkey had “legitimate interests” to protect its southern borders and supported the creation of a “security zone” on Syrian soil. He added that he and Erdogan agreed on “additional joint steps” to “normalise” the situation in Idlib.

Nicholas Heras, Middle East expert at the Centre for a New American Security, a think-tank in Washington, said one result of the visit was an acknowledgement by Russia of Turkey’s interests in Idlib. “Putin and Erdogan have been shadow-boxing over the issue of Idlib for over a year now and this reality will not change,” Heras wrote in response to questions.

“Moscow does not want Assad to wage a bloody campaign deep into Idlib and the Russians need Turkey to take ownership over reducing the power of Salafist-jihadist groups in that province. Putin needs Erdogan and this fact gives the Turkish leader a lot of options in his dealings with Moscow.”

Putin, however, did not offer concrete measures to address Turkey’s problems or to rein in Assad. One day after the meeting in Moscow, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said warplanes fired at areas surrounding a Turkish observation post in Sheir Maghar in Idlib.

Reports from Syria said government troops and pro-Iranian fighters gathered for a push further north. Russia said Syrian troops would start a unilateral ceasefire in Idlib August 31 but previous attempts to call a truce failed to stop the fighting.

Another of Turkey’s 12 military posts in Idlib, near the village of Morek in southern Idlib, has been surrounded by Syrian troops since mid-August.

The Turkish news website Haberturk reported in late August that the Morek post was being protected by Russian troops. If confirmed, such a development would be a humiliation for Turkey, which prides itself on having one of the most powerful armed forces in the region.

“Erdogan failed to convince Putin, and thereby his Syrian proxies, to change course in Idlib,” said Aykan Erdemir, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think-tank. “Barring the Kremlin’s intervention, Erdogan will either have to evacuate some of the observation posts in Idlib or flex military muscle with the hopes of deterring Assad,” Erdemir said via e-mail.

Turkey’s military mission in Idlib was further thrown into doubt by reports that four army generals resigned from Turkey’s armed forces after being posted to units serving in Syria.

Observers said Erdogan is under pressure from Putin regarding the planned creation of a “safe zone” in north-eastern Syria. Ankara has been in talks with Washington about the issue, as the United States is supporting the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in the region. The United States hopes that an agreement with Ankara on a security arrangement along the border can prevent a Turkish incursion in the region.

Speaking while returning to Turkey after the Moscow visit, Erdogan said he would not accept any delaying tactics by the Americans in setting up the zone.

The YPG, seen as a terrorist group by Turkey, withdrew from the Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain border positions the week of August 26 to prove it was serious about ongoing talks, the Kurdish-led authority in northern and eastern Syria said.

Russia wants the United States to withdraw from Syria and is concerned that any arrangement with Turkey for a “safe zone” could cement the presence of US troops in the country.

That is why Putin signalled to Erdogan during the Moscow talks that Turkey should clear its “safe zone” plans with the Syrian government, Russia’s ally, said Kerim Has, a Moscow-based expert on Russian-Turkish relations.

“Once again, Putin pushes Erdogan towards contact with Damascus,” Has wrote in response to questions.

The Turkish leader is calling for Assad’s removal from power and has avoided cooperating with the Syrian government.

While political differences between Russia and Turkey in Syria grow, their defence cooperation continues to flourish. In July, Turkey began taking delivery of Russian S-400 missile defence systems, a move that strained ties with the United States. As the two leaders were meeting in Moscow, deliveries of the second battery of the S-400 system began in Turkey.

Russia and Turkey are also discussing the possibility of deliveries of the Russian-made Sukhoi Su-57 stealth fighter jet and Su-35 aircraft to Turkey.

The issue is likely to increase concerns in the West about Turkey’s widening political distance to its traditional NATO allies. The United States has suspended Turkey’s cooperation in the F-35 fighter programme because of Ankara’s S-400 decision.