Russia-Turkey Tension in Northwestern Syria: Causes and Trajectories

EPC | 13 Feb 2020

Russian-Turkish relations are put to a hard test these days. The escalating tension between the two sides in Syria's Idlib province and the countryside of Aleppo threatens to undermine bilateral cooperation and coordination on more than one front in war-ravaged Syria. Recent military developments have brought about a dangerous shift in the rules of engagement between the two parties, and have opened the door for potential direct confrontation. This is particularly true as both countries embrace contradictory positions in justifying their actions. On the one hand, Turkey believes that the Russia-backed Syrian army onslaught on Idlib and the countryside of Aleppo will push about a million Syrians to Turkey's borders, threatening Turkish national security. In turn, Russia is sticking to the implementation of the Sochi Agreement, which obliges Turkey to dismantle extremist organizations, as well as Turkey's lack of commitment to handing over control over international roads to the Assad regime.

This paper highlights the military developments taking place in Idlib and the countryside of Aleppo, and their impact on the Syrian conflict. It also tries to explore the trajectories of these developments and their implications for Turkish-Russian relations in particular and the Syrian issue in general.

Syrian-Russian-Iranian Escalation

In December 2019, Syrian regime forces and their allied Iranian militias launched, under Russian air support, an offensive on opposition-held areas in northwestern Syria. The stated objective was to liberate the international road (M5) that had been agreed to be handed over to the Syrian government as part of the Sochi Agreement signed between Russia and Turkey in 2018. This agreement provided for the establishment of a demilitarized zone around the international road, but Turkey did not implement the agreement, given the fact that the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front) retained control over the majority of the area covered by the agreement.

The tripartite agreed focused on the southern and southeastern countryside of Idlib, and the adjacent southwestern countryside of Aleppo, where the international road "M5", which links the city of Aleppo with the capital Damascus, passes through several main cities, including Hama and Homs, down to the southern border with Jordan.

The operation took a strategic shift after the Syrian regime forces took control of the city of Maarat al-Numan in the southern countryside of Idlib on January 29, 2020, and then on February 8, they controlled Saraqib, which connects both the "M5" and "M4" highways linking Syria's east with its Mediterranean coast. The city of Saraqib is also distinguished by its proximity to the city center of Idlib, and the fact that taking control over Saraqib threatens to isolate opposition-held areas, especially in Ariha, Jisr Al-Shughour and Jabal Al-Zawiya.

These developments have prompted Turkey to send military reinforcements to stop the advancement of the Syrian forces and their allies, and to build four observation points north of Saraqib that have not been agreed upon with the Russians, who had previously agreed with the Turks to build 12 observation points. The Syrian forces targeted the Turkish observation points in Saraqib, killing 6 Turkish soldiers. In turn, Turkey responded by bombing the positions of the Syrian forces in more than one location.

As the Syrian forces continued to advance in Idlib and Aleppo countryside, Turkey strengthened its positions by sending military reinforcements. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Turkey dispatched more than 1,400 military vehicles, including tanks and artillery batteries. It has also deployed about 6,000 soldiers, in locations between Saraqib and Idlib city center, in Sirmin, Taftanaz Airport, Al-Mastumah and Tala'a Al-Baath camps. The Syrian forces targeted Taftanaz airport and killed five Turkish soldiers, after armed opposition groups, supported by Turkish infantry forces, attempted to retake some areas held by the regime forces in Saraqib.

The Failure of Russian-Turkish Negotiations

On February 8, Russia sent a negotiating delegation headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin, accompanied by Alexander Lavrentiev, the Russian President's special envoy to Syria, to negotiate with Turkey. At the table, the Turkish delegation was headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Ambassador Sedat Onal. The Russian delegation offered an updated agreement based on redrawing the de-escalation zone behind international highways, but the Turkish delegation rejected the offer, and the Russian delegation left without achieving any result.

As escalation between Turkish and Russian forces continued to mount on the ground, the Russian delegation returned on February 10 for another round of talks which also hit a dead-end. The Russian delegation rejected the Turkish demands regarding the withdrawal of the Syrian forces behind the observation points as provided for in the "Sochi" Agreement, stressing that the military operations in Idlib will continue until "the elimination of terrorism."

Map of Control

A large chunk of opposition-controlled areas in northwestern Syria, which are home to about three million Syrians, has been lost to Syrian regime forces. The opposition lost 35% (about 600 square kilometers) of areas that were under its control until the recent military operation. With the increasing indications that the Syrian forces have advanced towards Jabal Al-Zawiya and Jisr Al-Shughour in the northwestern countryside of Idlib, a large swathe of Idlib is now threatened with collapse, along with the rest of the northern Latakia countryside.

In Aleppo’s countryside, which is connected to Idlib, the Syrian forces are close to extending their control over the entire southern countryside of Aleppo, while their sights are turning to the western countryside of Aleppo, in order to further boost the security of the city center of Aleppo. The Aleppo fronts are of strategic importance to the opposition, which sees these areas a strength given their proximity to the center of the city, and some consider them a vulnerable point in the regime's control.

Many of these areas are of strategic importance, either because they constitute a crossroads for transportation, such as Saraqib, or because of their strategic hills and highlands, such as Al-Eis in the countryside of Aleppo. The importance of these areas lies in the fact that they pave the way for controlling other regions, and render many of them fallen militarily.

Although Turkish observation posts exist in these areas, most of them, as a result of the blockade, have become ineffective in military terms. In the same context, Turkey wants to establish more observation points with the aim of raising the ceiling of negotiations with Russia to prevent the latter from invading the city center of Idlib.

Russia's Motives and Goals

It can be said that what prompted Russia to escalate military operations in the countryside of Idlib and Aleppo is a set of factors, the most important of which are:

  1. The fact that the Russian mediation between Turkey and the Syrian regime that Russia undertook, by bringing together the intelligence chiefs of the two countries (Hakan Fidan and Ali Mamluk) on January 13 in Moscow, with the aim of opening two-way channels, failed. The attack on the Idlib region constitutes an attempt to compel Turkey to cooperate with the Syrian regime, both on security and military issues, and establish coordination between the two armies on the front lines.
  2. The fact that Russia believes its coordination with Turkey in Syria is no longer relevant or important after the war in Syria has become limited to only 2 percent of Syrian territory, particularly what is left of Idlib. Russia has always considered coordination between the two parties in Syria interim necessitated by the battlefields. The two countries maintain contradictory and different visions about the nature of the military solution in Idlib, and the future of the political solution throughout Syria.
  3. The fact that Russia is taking advantage of Turkey's current isolation and hostility with many parties, which puts Ankara in a weak position and in constant need of Russia. These facts also pushed Russia not to deal Turkey as an equal party and to force it to make painful concessions in Syria. This is evidenced by the interruption of communications between Putin and Erdogan, and the fact all the contacts that took place between the two leaders months ago were at the request of Erdogan.

By pursuing military escalation in northwestern Syria, Russia seeks to achieve the following:

  1. Russian President Putin seeks to preempt any Turkish-American understandings that may put pressure on him in Syria, and thus strives, by attacking Turkey's spheres of influence in Idlib, to weaken its bargaining chips and render them useless in any understanding with the U.S.
  2. Force Turkey to accept a new Sochi agreement that takes into account field and military transformations, including the need to withdraw Turkish observation points from the region.
  3. Press the Syrian opposition forces to accept the new field and military reality and use it at a new political negotiation table that requires the parties to accept the minimum.

Turkey’s Motives and Goals

As for Turkey, what prompted it to respond to the Russian-Syrian escalation is the following:

  1. Turkey believes that Russia’s actions in Syria involve a great deal of disrespect for it as a guarantor, especially land seizure and lack of respect for the agreements between the two parties, which embarrasses Turkey which appears as a guarantor who does not possess any power card.
  2. The fact that Turkey is running a confused foreign policy trying, on the one hand, to introduce Turkey as a dominant power in the region, but on the other hand, it continues to receive non-stop rebuffs from Russia in Syria. This matter will have repercussions on other issues, especially Libya. Turkey, which is weak and humiliated in Syria, will not be dealt with by regional and international powers neither in Libya nor in its conflicts in the Mediterranean seriously.
  3. The asylum and refugee issue is "terrifying" for the AKP government. The potential inflow of large numbers of Syrian refugees to Turkey as a result of the military operations in Idlib will exacerbate the Turkish government's confusion in managing the refugee issue which has already had its toll on the Turkish internal front and stirred anti-refugee sentiment. So far, about 586,000 people have been displaced from the de-escalation areas in Idlib and Aleppo towards areas not targeted by the ongoing operations near the Turkish border, according to the United Nations. This wave of displacement is among the largest since the outbreak of the conflict in 2011.

Turkey seeks to achieve the following:

  1. Strengthen its position in any upcoming negotiations, and to force the Russians to return to the negotiating table. These Turkish steps come after the talks designed to halt the Syrian regime's forces advancement in Idlib have failed and the fact the Astana Track is now a matter of the past. They also underline the decisions taken by the Turkish National Security Council a few days ago, which called for broader measures to protect civilians in Idlib.
  2. Impose some conditions on Russia, especially with regard to a new area of influence on the border strip north of Idlib province, to create a land connection that extends from the northern countryside of Aleppo, to the Afrin region, and as far as possible to the west.
  3. Throw the crisis back to Syria, by taking the decision to prevent the Syrian regime forces from crossing international roads to the west, and establish a broad and safe (military) zone in the region, which could push Russia to accept the establishment of a safe zone on the border strip.

U.S. Role

Turkey's rush and audacity to clash with Russia indicates a supportive U.S. cover. It is well known that Turkey used, in the past, to keep its allies under check, fearing a clash with Russia. But Russia has utilized the Turkish fear to bite off large swaths of opposition areas, and to break down all of its understandings with Turkey.

Syrian opposition sources confirm a U.S. involvement in the conflict in Syria and that the U.S. is trying to push Turkey to abandon its understandings with Russia, and to restore U.S.-Turkey coordination in northwestern Syria. Here, it is important to note the message that James Jeffrey, the US special representative for Syria, delivered to Ankara, against the backdrop of Russia and its allies' ongoing onslaught on Idlib. Jeffrey said: "We have made it clear to him [Erdogan], however, that his efforts to try to work deals with the Russians in the northeast, in the northwest, all the way to President Erdogan – we, including I, have told him you cannot trust Putin, and he’s seeing the results of that right now."

The U.S. has an interest in distracting the Russians in Idlib as long as possible, so it can finalize the necessary arrangements in the east of the Euphrates, and to convince the Russians that they are an influential party in any future settlement in Syria.

Despite US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's condemnation of the Syrian-Russian-Iranian escalation and his assertion of Turkey's right to respond to the killing of its six soldiers, Turkish analysts believe that the Americans cannot be relied upon, and that there are no solid facts of a U.S. support to Turkey in Syria. However, the analysts point out that Ankara may utilize a U.S. position critical of Russia and the Assad regime, but it must deal with caution with this kind of support.

The Conflict in Northwestern Syria: Future Scenarios

The First Scenario: The two countries agreeing on new understandings under updated terms. In this context, Turkish media outlets have revealed that President Putin suggested to Erdogan during a phone conversation made at the request of Erdogan, to draw new lines of contact, and to separate the moderates from the extremists in northwestern Syria. Despite Turkey's reluctance, and its demand for the withdrawal of the Syrian regime forces from the areas they occupied recently, this option seems appropriate because it will introduce Turkey as the influential party that Russia was forced to take into consideration.

As for Russia, it favors a policy of a gradual land control and it does not seek to enter a bloody battle in Idlib at the present time, because it needs to secure the positions that it controlled. It also realizes that Idlib, now under a semi-blockade from all sides, and the exposure of its defense lines, has become fragile.

This scenario is the most likely, especially as the two sides, Russia and Turkey, begin political talks to find a solution to the crisis, which means there is a possibility for compromises.

The Second Scenario: The Syrian forces pressing ahead with the Idlib offensive under Russian support. Military movements on the ground indicate that Russia is not about to end the attack on Idlib and submit to Turkish blackmail. What encourages Russia to continue to go down this road is the fact that the opposition factions collapsed and were defeated under the Russian-backed Syrian strikes. This, for the Russians, is an opportunity not to be missed given the possibility that the U.S. might join the conflict and extend a helping hand to the armed factions of the Syrian opposition.

This scenario is further supported by the fact that Russian military and intelligence services continue to pressure Putin to end the Syrian conflict and minimize Turkey's role as much as possible. Those official maintain hostility to Turkey since the Chechen war, in which Turkey supported the Chechen rebels in their war with Russia.

The Third Scenario: The Turkish army entering Idlib and annexing large parts of it, similar to what happened in Afrin and northern Syria, in an effort to preempt the Assad's control of this area. This prospect is supported by the large Turkish reinforcements on the borders with Syria, and Turkey's repeated demand for a safe zone in that area.

This scenario is possible if negotiations with Russia fail to reach a solution that takes Turkey's interests into consideration. Although it poses a gamble, given that the possibility of a clash with Russia will be significant in this case, Turkey will find itself compelled to take it under the pretext of preserving its national security, which will be threatened by the major waves of asylum as a result of the Assad forces advance into Idlib.

Conclusions

The Russian and Turkish sides are entangled in a complex and hard game in Syria. For Turkey, its options appear more difficult, given the difference in the balance of power with Russia. In addition, Turkey has important economic ties with Russia, which is Turkey's largest energy supplier. But still, Turkey finds itself required to show strength in this confrontation to maintain its prestige as a regional power. Therefore, Turkey's options are limited to continuing to send more troops and fight or accept defeat and bear the repercussions of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees crossing the borders to Turkey. Accordingly, Turkey is pursuing the establishment of a safe zone in Idlib that includes the city center near the Turkish border, and, at the same time, seeks to maintain relations with Russia, especially in the energy domain.

As for Russia, it faces pressing options in Syria. Moscow believes that the problem is not about Turkey, but rather about Russia's standing as an international player vis-a-vis super powers like the United States. Equally, Russia could not easily and conveniently escalate with Turkey, given the fact that bilateral ties, whether economic or military, have evolved, a fact that made Russia aware that Turkey is an important asset and an indispensable partner that can be used to penetrate the anti-Russian Western front. Russia's options include continuing the escalation and ending the Idlib battle in order to move to another priority region, the east of the Euphrates, or strike an agreement with Turkey on new arrangements. Russia prefers ending the Syrian war and making a political settlement that takes into account its status as the strongest actor on the Syrian arena.

 

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