Turkey and Russia seek deal as 900,000 flee Idlib

Ankara told Washington it is trying to help Syrians in Idlib and got support from the Trump administration

A wall along the border between Turkey and Syria is pictured at the Syrian town of Atimah, Idlib province, in this picture taken from Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey October 10, 2017 (photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
A wall along the border between Turkey and Syria is pictured at the Syrian town of Atimah, Idlib province, in this picture taken from Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey October 10, 2017
(photo credit: OSMAN ORSAL/REUTERS)
Turkey has been scrambling for a week to get a deal with Russia that will enable Ankara to walk away from parts of Idlib in northern Syria and keep forces in other parts of the country.
The strategy is part of Turkey’s goal of sidelining what remains of Syria’s opposition groups. Syria’s Russia-backed al-Assad regime has been pushing an offensive that jumped into high gear in recent weeks, making refugees of hundreds of thousands of Syrians fleeing the fighting.
Ankara told the US it was trying to help Syrians in Idlib, and it received support from the Trump administration. The US sent Syria envoy James Jeffrey to Turkey, where he spoke Turkish and expressed sadness over the “martyrdom” of several Turkish soldiers killed in Syria. The soldiers were killed by mistake in shelling by the Syrian regime.
But Turkey’s concerns are much larger than its soldiers. It has been forced to send masses of armored vehicles to Idlib, and it wants to find a way to work out a new deal with Russia that will end some fighting and hand the Syrian regime a victory over part of Idlib.
The UN has called the scenes in Idlib horrifying, as up to 900,000 people fled. Trump is concerned, and he has spoken to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and thanked Turkey for helping prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib. Turkey has told the US it is trying to help the Syrians, but in reality, it has enabled a Syrian regime offensive that forced them to flee.
This agreement dates from 2018 talks in Sochi between Russia and Turkey. The September 2018 deal was supposed to see the extremist groups in Idlib, led by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, stop their activities targeting Russia or the regime. Instead, they have continued, and Russia considers them terrorists.
Turkey used the pause in fighting in Idlib in 2018 to prepare to attack Kurdish groups in eastern Syria. Turkey wanted to defeat the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and ordered the Americans to leave Syria. Turkey accused the US of training terrorists. It got a promise from Trump in December 2018 that the US would leave.
In October 2019, Turkey invaded eastern Syria and 200,000 people had to flee. Turkey and Russia then signed a deal for eastern Syria, giving Russia and the regime a greater role as the US pulled back.
This is Turkey’s goal: Defeat Kurdish groups it says are linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and enable Russia and the Syrian regime to control most of Syria. Turkey prefers Russia’s role in Syria to a US role. Turkey’s foreign minister met his Russian counterpart at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend and had “positive” discussions about Idlib.
Turkey’s pro-government media encourages “maintaining constructive relations with Moscow and expanding cooperation in trade and energy,” according to the Daily Sabah. From February 15, when the ministers met in Munich, and February 18, the Syrian regime advanced into new areas around Aleppo. The message was clear from Damascus that it will keep moving forward.
Russian state media has argued that Turkey is quietly arming its proxies, the Syrian National Army, which it previously used against the SDF and against Kurds in Afrin. TASS reported that Turkey gave them “advanced weapons” and M113 armored personnel carriers, adding: “The militants won’t be able to turn the tide unless the Turkish army joins the conflict.” Rumors in Idlib claimed that the rebels also were getting missiles to shoot down regime helicopters. Two helicopters were shot down, according to videos posted online.
Evidence that Turkey and Russia appear to be on good terms, despite the rhetoric in Idlib and almost a million people fleeing, can be seen in the resumption of Turkish-Russian joint patrols in other parts of Syria. But UN humanitarian officials warn that the crisis in Idlib is horrifying. Some 900,000 people have been uprooted since December.
The question from Ankara’s position is how to walk away from parts of Idlib, close up some observation posts and position the Turkish army along the border of what remains, while appearing to look like Turkey still backs the very Syrians it just watched become refugees.
Turkey’s delegation in Russia is headed by Sedat Onal, a deputy foreign minister. The Russians have Sergey Vershinin in their corner. Military and intelligence officials are in Moscow as well. Turkish media does not mention the 900,000 who have fled; it wants to calm down tensions and make it seem like the current problem is just an “outbreak of violence in the Idlib de-escalation zone.”
Turkey says it wants full implementation of the agreements of the Sochi memorandum from 2018. Turkey says the Syrian regime has violated the agreement 20,000 times. The Russians and the regime think terrorists in Idlib have violated it. The larger story is simply that the regime wants to push forward. It has grabbed a strategic highway and wants to eventually reconquer all of Idlib.
Turkey must manage that defeat without getting Syrians angry at how it has slowly abandoned them. In the past, Turkey would redirect Syrians to fight against Syrian Kurds in Afrin or fight in Idlib. Now it is not clear where the 900,000 refugees will go. Turkey has often asked the Europeans for assistance and said it wants to resettle Syrian refugees in Turkey in Kurdish areas of eastern Syria. But the $27 billion price tag on resettlement is too much for Turkey.
In the background of Turkey-Russia discussions is Turkey’s need to get the S-400 air-defense system from Russia and also its recent claims that Jeffrey, the US envoy, was not convincing in his sympathy for Turkey. Syrians who sympathized with the rebels do not know what to make of the disaster. Some felt Turkey might finally intervene. But Turkey has made it clear it does not want more Syrian refugees.
Ankara may be maneuvering to see if it can get more international support due to the Idlib crisis, using the refugees as a kind of bargaining chip, while it signs a deal with Russia to cement the crisis. The US has offered lip service of support, but most countries seem to want to be done with Syria. Most have fatigue and have given up hope of doing much to change the realities on the ground.
That means nine years after Syrians rose in protest against the Assad regime in Dara’a in 2011, one of the final tragic parts of the war is being played out in Idlib, as the Syrians are once against sidelined by big-power politics.