Turkey and Russia quiet on Idlib tensions

Friday arrived with most quiet on the Idlib front. Not entirely quiet, but no MiGs dueling with F-16s. That is because Turkey’s real agenda is not to create a conflict with Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi (photo credit: REUTERS)
Russian President Vladimir Putin meets with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi
(photo credit: REUTERS)
On Thursday some on social media thought World War III was about to break out as Turkish tanks and armored vehicles were seen rushing toward a village called Nayran to do battle with Syrian regime troops. Two Turkish soldiers were reportedly killed in shelling and Turkey responded with rocket fire. With Russia, the US, Iran, Turkey and dozens of armed groups all in Syria, there could be a major war on.
But Friday arrived with all quiet on the Idlib front. Not entirely quiet, but no MiGs dueling with F-16s. That is because Turkey’s real agenda, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is not to create a conflict with Russia. Turkey wants to show it is serious by sending thousands of soldiers to Idlib and hundreds of armored vehicles.
Idlib province is mostly controlled by extremists led by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. But Turkey had observation towers around the area due to a 2018 agreement with Russia. Under the agreements and talks in Astana and Sochi, the extremists in Idlib were supposed to remove heavy weapons and stop attacking Russian bases with drones.
But Turkey doesn’t want to rein in extremists. It wants the Syrian opposition to be dependent on Ankara. It has used Syrian rebels to fight the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and other far-left Kurdish groups.
Turkey claims the SDF is linked to the PKK and asserts the US is training “terrorists” in Syria. Its goal is to defeat the Kurdish groups, not the Syrian regime. But Turkey is hosting four million refugees and it is afraid of another 900,000 refugees fleeing Idlib. So Ankara must show that it can flex its NATO-backed muscles and fly the flag in Idlib.
Unfortunately for Turkey, the Syrian regime, weak and undermanned but with Russian air power and backing, has been shelling Turkish forces. On February 10, five of its troops were killed; on February 20, two more were killed. On February 2 eight Turkish personnel were killed.
The US has called the Turkish losses “martyrs” but Ankara thinks US envoy James Jeffrey isn’t serious. So Turkey sent its foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu to meet the Russians in Munich on February 15. Turkey failed to get an agreement and another Turkish team flew to Moscow on February 16 for meetings on the 17th and 18th. But Russia has been unbending. It wants Turkey to leave the observation posts and accept the regime offensive that has forced the Syrian opposition out of dozens of towns and villages along a highway from Aleppo to Saraqib.
TURKEY IS now wondering what to do. It is flexing its muscles in Libya after a deal with the government in Tripoli called the GNA. Meanwhile, Russia and Egypt back a rival Libyan faction led by Khalifa Haftar, who is laying siege to Tripoli the way Russia and the regime are laying siege to Idlib. So Turkey invited GNA leader Fayez al-Sarraj to Istanbul for meetings.
A ceasefire in Libya has failed since January. Now Turkey has upped its rhetoric against Haftar, claiming that Libya is a police state and that he is a warlord coup leader. But Haftar is not worried. He says Turkish troops sent to Libya in December must leave,and is ready for a ceasefire if Turkey agrees.
Ankara sees Libya and Idlib as being linked. It has sent Syrian rebels to fight in Libya. Turkey wants to use the Idlib crisis to get European powers to support it. France and Germany have condemned the Russian-backed offensive in Idlib. The UN and NATO have also supported Turkey. NATO even put out a nice video about how glorious Turkey’s army is. But Ankara wants more than videos. It wants US Patriot missiles.
Turkey is even open to talks with Greece – anything to bide time. Ankara knows that the Europeans, especially France and Italy, are concerned about Turkey strong-arming the GNA in Libya and sending armored vehicles, Syrian mercenaries and drones to Libya. The Haftar army, called the LNA, attacked a ship in Tripoli’s port this week claiming it had Turkish arms. Turkey claims the US must not interfere in its Libya operations. It wants to re-assert Turkish claims since before 1911 to Libya.
Now Turkey calls on the Assad regime to observe a ceasefire in Idlib. “We do not aim for a face-off with Russia,” Defense Minister Hulusi Akar says. But Erdogan has set “targets” for a possible operation. Turkey has what it calls its A, B and C plans. But Ankara wants Russian energy deals and S-400 air defense. It only recently seemed to ask for US Patriots in case it wants to operate in Idlib. It is between an S-400 and a hard place now because it can’t lose Russia – and it wants to keep its image of defending Syrians in Idlib.
What might come out of this is joint patrols with Russia and Turkey in Idlib, similar to eastern Syria where they have a deal. But Ankara wants to use Syria’s airspace with a ceasefire plan in place. Moscow is slow-playing the crisis, waiting to see what happens.