ANKARA: A Russian military delegation held meetings with Turkey on Saturday about a looming conflict in Syria’s Idlib province.
Last week saw clashes between Turkish troops and Russia-backed Syrian regime forces — the first since the beginning of the civil war in 2011. Eight Turkish officers were killed.
Although Moscow said Turkish forces had come under fire because Ankara did not inform Russia about the movement of its troops, Syria’s assault on Turkish personnel was considered a shock to Russian-Turkish cooperation in Idlib, which is currently under the control of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, a former Al-Qaeda affiliate.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan gave an ultimatum to President Bashar Assad to withdraw his troops behind Turkey’s observation post lines by the end of this month or pay the price, adding that “nothing will be the same” after Monday’s attack.
Erdogan also criticized Russia, which is an ally of convenience, for violating its commitments under the 2018 Sochi agreement.
Kyle Orton, a UK-based researcher on Syria, said Turkey has been adding diplomatic pressure against Russia as the regime coalition’s Idlib offensive has progressed such as visiting Ukraine, reiterating support for Georgian NATO membership, and publicly declaring the Astana process, crucial to Moscow’s effort to politically rehabilitate Assad internationally, to be dead.
“The pro-Assad coalition could withstand this, and Russia could not restrain Assad/Iran ground forces even if it wanted to, but Turkey has now decided to add resources where it matters, on the ground,” he told Arab News.
Joint patrol missions between Turkish and Russian military forces have been skipped following the attack.
The issue is that pro-Assad forces were likely to call Turkey’s bluff quite quickly, he added. It has generally been assumed that Russia’s involvement provided those troops with immunity from Turkish attack.
“If that remains true, then pro-Assad forces will prevail, thousands of people will be killed, and Turkey will be dealing with a new, massive wave of refugees, a crisis that will almost certainly spill into Europe. If Turkey actually does stand its ground, it will seriously weaken relations with Russia, though that brief alignment appears to be coming to an end anyway as the common interests that bound them in Syria dissipate,” he said.
Turkey already hosts about 3.7 million registered Syrian refugees, a population that has become politically, socially and economically costly for the country, and no further influx is expected to be allowed in.
The bottom line was that Turkey could assert itself against the remnants of Assad’s army and Iran’s militias, Orton said. It came down to a political calculation, one the West could influence by offering support to Turkey.
Abdullah Agar, a security expert and retired special warfare and commando officer, said Turkey had dispatched a task force consisting of at least 1,000 tactical vehicles equipped with aerial defense and fire capabilities.
“This reinforcement may be read as a move of deterrence or retaliation. But it may also mean preparation for a battle or a conventional war,” he told Arab News.
“President Erdogan hinted several times at taking a stronger initiative to achieve Turkey’s political and demographic targets in the region.”
Agar said that ongoing negotiations between Ankara and the Kremlin will be determinant on the outcome and on Turkey’s incoming moves on the ground.
“It seems that Ankara will insist on creating a safe zone free of rebels and heavy weapons in the region stretching from M4 and M5 highways to observation posts. However, the Kremlin and Assad’s regime may insist on taking M4 and M5 as a demarcation line.”
He said it was the first time Turkey had sent such a strong reinforcement to Syria, unlike it had done in the past while reinforcing positions along its border with Syria during previous cross-border operations.
“This time, it means something, and the days to come will show this meaning.”
While Turkey has bolstered its military positions in Idlib, there are reports of Russia using Turkish airspace and waterways to transport ammunition to Syria to support regime troops who are fighting against Turkey.
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