As tensions escalate between Turkey and Syria over the rebel-held province of Idlib, Ankara is trying to reach a compromise with Russia, the main supporter of Damascus, in order to diffuse the crisis, experts said.
NATO member Turkey has sent thousands of reinforcements in the northwestern Syrian province to bolster its 12 observations posts as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned of an imminent military operation to halt the Russian-led Syrian offensive which has killed 15 Turkish soldiers since the start of February.
Analysts warned of a risk of clashes between Turkish forces and Russians, which back different sides in the region amid mounting tensions between the two countries who, in the past, had still managed to cooperate in Syria despite their differences.
Since the start of the crisis, Turkish and Russian delegations had inconclusive talks in Ankara and Moscow, however, efforts are still underway to reach some form of an agreement that would diffuse tensions, Turkish sources said.
“We believe that we have not yet achieved the results that we are expecting, but this is an ongoing process,” a diplomatic source told Xinhua on the condition of anonymity, implying that a new round of talks may take place.
On Friday, Turkish and Russian leaders, Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, held a critical phone conversation. According to a statement released by the Turkish presidency, Erdogan urged his counterpart to stop Syria’s offensive in Idlib amid fears of a humanitarian crisis.
The two leaders also reiterated their commitments to existing agreements in Syria, a wording that suggests a de-escalation, at least for now, of the crisis between the two countries, Turkish media reported.
Nevertheless, analysts believed that the Idlib crisis has dealt a blow to the Turkish-Russian partnership in Syria.
“The time of truth is around the corner,” independent political analyst Tulin Daloglu told Xinhua, arguing that “what Idlib boils down to in the end is a hardcore power game, and will eventually break the tie between Putin and Erdogan.”
Both Ankara and Moscow agreed in September 2018 to turn Idlib into a so-called de-escalation zone where acts of aggression are expressly prohibited. Turkey is adamant to see this agreement enforced and has otherwise threatened of military action.
Although the Russian-Turkish talks on Idlib have failed, there is still a window of opportunity to reach a compromise, according to statements from officials of both countries.
Joint Russian-Turkish patrols resumed on Monday in northeastern Syria where Turkey launched a cross-border operation against a Kurdish faction last year.
But it is not clear if Ankara will give up on its demands for Syrian forces to withdraw from the de-escalation zone and Moscow, in turn, is unlikely to agree to grant, albeit unofficially, the status of “Turkish security zone” to Idlib territories not yet captured by Assad, said Russian analyst Kirill Semenow in an article for Al-Monitor.
Oytun Orhan, senior analyst at the Ankara based Center for Middle Eastern Studies (ORSAM) argued that Ankara is not ready to lose face by withdrawing soldiers from its observation posts, most of which are currently under siege by Syrian forces.
“Turkey doesn’t want to lose its gains on the field in Syria and aims to keep its troops in Idlib at any cost,” explained Orhan.
According to military observers, over 9,000 troops have already been sent into Syria in the last two weeks, however, Turkey doesn’t have air control in Idlib where only Russian and Syrian forces have that supremacy, making things very difficult for Turkish ground forces.
To reduce risks, Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar confirmed on Thursday press reports that his country had asked the United States to deploy Patriot missiles along Turkey’s southern border.
“There could be Patriot support …there is the threat of airstrikes, missiles against our country,” he told CNN Turk broadcaster, while Erdogan is domestically criticized for purchasing Russian S-400 missile defense systems that Ankara is seemingly reticent to use in the Syrian theater.
Akar also said that Turkish and Russian forces are discussing various de-escalation options, including joint patrols in Idlib, adding that Turkey has no intention to be at odds with Russia.
Erdogan has set a deadline until the end of February for a return to a stability in Idlib while Ankara is also testing the grounds for a possible new summit between Russia, Iran and Turkey to speed up the political process before Assad’s forces reach Idlib’s center. Enditem