Cracks in Russia-Turkey Détente over Idlib

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

September 12, 2018

Last week’s summit in Tehran between Russia, Turkey and Iran on the fate of Syria’s Idlib province ended inconclusively, with promises of a temporary truce agreed in the last minute as a face-saving measure for the Turkish president. The Russians and the Iranians, with the support of Syrian President Bashir Al Assad, seem determined to consolidate Assad’s authority over the entire Syrian territory. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has had an on-off relationship with Moscow and Tehran over the years, has expressed concern about the impact of an all-out assault on the Syrian province of Idlib, although many suspect that Erdogan’s concerns are less about its impact on human life than on Turkey’s ability to exert influence in the region.

For many, including Hurriyet Daily News’s Nuray Mert, the disagreements over Idlib are the result of diverging interests among the main actors in the region, many of whom have chosen to cooperate for tactical purposes but still maintain very different strategic aims in Syria: “The first complication derives from the fact that on one hand, Turkey’s foreign policy is becoming closer to Russia and Iran as the country drifts away from the so-called Western alliance. On the other, Turkey’s position on the fate of Idlib is closer to the United States and the Western alliance in general…. After lots of twists and turns, Turkey decided to ally with Russia and Iran, but it has been an uneasy cooperation since Russia and Iran are allies with al-Assad and have engaged militarily in Syria to rescue Assad from losing Syria to Western-allied Islamists…. Nevertheless, stakes for all parties are starting to divert from each other in Syria and the prospects of cooperation with Russia and Iran are becoming more challenging.”

Reflecting on the outcome of the meeting in Tehran, Arab News’s Talmiz Ahmad suggests that, given the diversity of interests, there are no straightforward solutions for Syria and Idlib in particular: “The outcome of the Tehran summit is just one more move on the complex Syrian chessboard, on which several players with diverse and competing interests are pushing for maximum advantage as the scenario approaches its endgame…. The attempt to take Idlib will commence shortly. It will not be an all-out assault but will follow the earlier Syrian pattern of moving forward village by village, so that casualties can be minimized and opposition elements can surrender…. The US response to these developments remains uncertain. While Trump remains viscerally hostile to Iranian influence in Syria, his officials are opposed to any Russian achievement in the country. A strong US military intervention in Syria could plunge the Middle East into a serious conflagration.”

Meanwhile, some Turkish commentators have struggled to shine a positive light on the summit’s outcome. For example, Daily Sabah’s Burhanettin Duran points out that while the “Tehran trilateral summit did not result in the best solution to the crisis in Idlib, but it was a good starting point for the peace process…. We know for a fact that Erdoğan’s goal was to prevent the Russians and the Assad regime from carrying out a comprehensive operation in Idlib. In this sense, he got what he wanted…. To be clear, the cease-fire isn’t final. But it would appear that Turkey won some time to finish what it started in the previous summits…. The Tehran summit facilitated a cease-fire in Idlib, which the Turkish president calls ‘Little Syria,’ and created new opportunities for the political process.”

On the other hand, writing for the same pro-government newspaper, Hakki Ocal accuses Russia of cynicism in the face of human tragedy: “For the Soviet Union – oops, the Russian Federation – Syria is important for one and only one thing: the survival of their naval and air bases in the country…. The Russo-Syrian alliance, one of the rare agreements that the Russian government kept in the post-Soviet era, is so important for the Kremlin that if the Syrian side asks Putin to erase every living soul in Idlib or anywhere else he would gladly do that…. President Erdoğan warned Putin saying that if he heeds the Syrian demand to carpet bomb Idlib to ‘clean the country of all terrorists,’ then those three million unarmed women, men and children would try to cross the border. He further said that Turkey cannot possibly put up with this new refugee crisis.”

Veteran commentator Amir Taheri focuses in an op-ed for Asharq Alawsat on the relationship between Iran and Russia, suggesting that the mullahs in Tehran have far less leverage in Syria than it appears, and that Syria’s Assad has become a figurehead: “the leadership in Tehran is in an accommodating mood vis-a-vis Moscow. All that the mullahs want is for Putin to let them continue having some presence, even if largely symbolic, in Syria. Mired in a worsening economic crisis and challenged by nationwide protests, the ruling mullahs are left with a narrative based on the claim that they are fighting in Syria so that they won’t have to fight anti-Shiite militants in Iran itself. Losing that narrative would mean a possibly fatal humiliation for a regime that has little to offer Iranians…. In today’s summit in Tehran, Putin, Khamenei and Erdogan are three jugglers engaged in multiple deceptions. As for Assad, he is a phantom, seen but not heard.”

Writing for Khaleej Times, Arnab Neil Sengupta paints a different picture of Assad, one that sees him as one of the main drivers for reclaiming Idlib and reasserting his authority over all of Syria: “the ‘solution’ that emerged from the meeting in the Iranian capital was open disagreement among the participants, which could hardly have been expected to deter the Syrians and Russians from going ahead with their planned military assault on the last major stronghold of anti-government fighters…. In the final analysis, Assad, having tasted victory in a string of battles with rebels, is raring for a fight in Idlib in order to take control of [Syria’s] entire national territory (as Putin describes it) and turn the clock back to a time before the popular protests against his authoritarian rule erupted.”

Lost amidst all the political and military calculations is a consideration of the human toll that an attack on Idlib would have. That is the message of a recent Gulf News op-ed, warning against a military intervention: “All the conditions are in place now for what could very well spiral downwards into a humanitarian tragedy of unparalleled proportions…. In Idlib, the enclave is held by a series of rival rebel factions, making the work of finding the conditions for a ceasefire and implementing it even harder [than] in places such as Homs, Aleppo or Eastern Ghouta. Given the massed forces now ranged against the three million cowering in Idlib, the situation indeed seems dire. To avert a horrific tragedy will require brave leaders to make bold choices.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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