ISTANBUL - Russian and Turkish foreign ministers are set to hold talks Monday in Ankara focusing on the looming crisis over the rebel-controlled Syrian Idlib enclave, which threatens to become a military flashpoint between Turkish and Syrian forces. The crisis threatens to derail deepening Russian-Turkish ties.
Damascus is steadily massing its forces around Idlib in preparation for a widely expected assault. But Ankara has vowed to protect the rebels, declaring it a “red line.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is attending the two-day Turkey's Ambassador Conference. On the sidelines, he is scheduled to hold talks with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlut Cavusolgu, who is expected to press Lavrov to rein in Damascus.
“What will happen in Idlib will the Russians be willing or able to stop the regime, which is itching to attack Idlib and then finally do away with all the Jihadis,” international relation expert Soli Ozel of Istanbul’s Kadir Has University said.
“If the regime attacks Idlib then are we going to have a war with the Syrian regime,” he continued, “How can we have a war with the Syrian regime, which is being supported by Russia to the bitter end, and the Russians control the Syrian airspace.”
Despite backing opposite sides in the Syrian civil war, Ankara and Moscow have been increasingly cooperating over Syria, a cooperation that has been a springboard for closer bilateral ties. An Idlib confrontation threatens Moscow’s delicate diplomacy of balancing the conflicting interests of Damascus and Ankara.
“That’s why Moscow is working very hard to resolve this diplomatically, that is why Russia is very active,” said former senior Turkish ambassador Aydin Selcen.
The threat of military confrontation between Ankara and Damascus over Idlib is real. The Turkish army has 12 observation posts across the enclave, as part of an agreement with Moscow and Tehran under the auspices of the Astana Process.
“Idlib is a national security threat for Turkey,” analyst Ozel said, “Idlib has two and a half million people around 130,000 jihadis living there, and if the regime attacks them and the regime has no compunction to use chemical weapons. You have potentially at least a million people who are going to be bursting at your [Turkish] border. The [Turkish] cities of Hatay Gaziantep and Kilis will be vulnerable, despite the fact you have a wall,” Ozel added.
Turkey is hosting three and a half million Syrian refugees. There are growing reports of mounting tensions in Turkey over the refugee's presence. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to start returning the Syrians. Analysts warn social pressures are likely to grow with Turkey in the midst of a currency crisis, which is expected to result in a deep recession.
Selcen claims the survival of Idlib as a rebel stronghold is vital to Ankara as a symbol of continued resistance to the Assad regime. That along with the threat of a surge of new refugees means Ankara is ready to face down any threat to Idlib by Damascus, “Turkey can deal with Assad, with the strength of Turkish armed forces in Idlib and it can get stronger, along with the support of the local population in Idlib,” Selcen said.
“This means we are in a collision course between Damascus and Ankara,” Selcen continued, “and we’ve been there before in the late 50s even in the 90s. In my mind, this is a ticking bomb that needs to be defused, right now.”
Other experts claim Ankara will need support to challenge Damascus, given the regime is backed by Moscow and Tehran. NATO member Turkey traditionally would look to Washington, which also opposes Assad. That option appears closed given a recent collapse in relations, over Turkey’s ongoing detention of American pastor Andrew Brunson.
Until now Ankara has balanced its relations with Moscow and Washington to extract concessions from both. The policy of leveraging one against the other could be over, strengthening Lavrov’s hand in his talks with Cavusoglu.
Adding to Ankara’s unease is the growing speculation that U.S. President Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin reached a tentative agreement over Syria at last month’s Helsinki summit. "Was a deal made in Helsinki by Trump and Putin over Syria? Ankara is talking a lot about what happened in Helsinki,” Ozel said.
“Turkey can resist the Assad regime plausibly, but Turkey cannot resist the United States and Russia’s will if they agree Idlib should change hands,” former Turkish diplomat Selcen said.