As Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime presses ahead with a relentless campaign, his counterpart across the border in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan is battling to avoid being the big loser in the battle for the last rebel bastion of Idlib.
Erdogan, who has been siding with the rebels opposing Assad, is not only facing a fierce military push by the Syrian forces. He is also having to watch a massive number of displaced people fleeing to the Turkish border while his erstwhile Russian ally, Vladimir Putin, appears to have turned his back.
This month, as many as 17 Turkish soldiers have been killed by Syrian regime forces in the northwest Idlib province and several Turkish military observation posts — which Ankara thought were safe under deals with Russia, a key Damascus ally — ended up being surrounded in areas retaken by the regime.
Desperate to prevent a victory by his sworn enemy Assad and a new influx of refugees swarming to Turkey’s border gates, Erdogan has threatened an operation against Damascus forces unless they pull back by the end of February.
But at a time of tense relations with Putin over disagreements on Syria, a possible military campaign against the regime risks a confrontation with its guarantor Moscow — which is for Erdogan akin to squaring the circle.
Erdogan and Putin — the key international actors in the Syrian conflict — signed an agreement in Sochi in 2018 establishing a “demilitarised zone” separating the regime forces from the armed opposition and jihadist groups in the Idlib province.
But the deal has been in tatters in recent weeks as Ankara and Moscow have pointed the finger of blame at each other over its failure.
“If the Assad regime fails to retreat to the previous lines at the end of the month and if Turkey and Russia fail to reach an agreement, there is a great chance that we will witness a direct conflict between Turkey and the Assad regime,” Ankara-based political analyst Ali Bakeer told reporters.
“The problem for Turkey will not be the Syrian regime but the Russians,” he said.
Turkey has already taken in 3.6 million Syrian refugees and has said it is unwilling to open its borders to a new wave from Idlib.
With the growing resentment toward Syrians in Turkey, officials are planning to ease the burden by settling some of them in areas now controlled by the Turkish army following three previous offensives since 2016.
“The new wave of refugee arrivals would be the worst-case scenario for Turkey, not the direct clash with Assad regime,” Bakeer said. If Turkey and Russia fail to revive the Sochi agreement, Erdogan’s options are limited.
“One possible scenario is for Turkey to establish a safe zone in what would be left of Idlib and that zone would not be tied to any sort of agreements with Russia or Assad regime,” said Bakeer.
Such an area would allow Turkey to house internally displaced people who fled the fighting on the Syrian territory.
“Erdogan is aware of the strong resentment in Turkey against Syrian refugees,” Haid Haid, a researcher at Chatham House, told reporters.
“That’s why it has been framing its military activities in Idlib as a means to prevent more refugees from crossing
“The (political) cost will likely be high for him if he loses many soldiers in Syria and still fails to stop refugees from crossing to Turkey. But he might be able to gain from the crisis if the outcome of his intervention is positive.”
Haid also believes that a Turkish offensive against the Syrian regime forces “is still a possibility” if political negotiations between Ankara and Moscow prove fruitless.
“Allowing Assad to capture Idlib will not only hurt Erdogan domestically, it will likely damage Turkey’s reputation and its ability to project power.”
For Haid, such a confrontation would not necessarily spell the end of the Turkish-Russian alliance given the burgeoning ties between the two countries in recent years especially in the fields of energy and defence.
“The current alliance between Turkey and Russia is broader than Syria,” he said.
“That is why neither of them is willing, at least for now, to destroy it. Idlib is important for Turkey but it is still not considered a deal breaker.”
AFP with additional inputs from GVS News Desk