Turkey has deployed more troops in northwestern Syria to deter any major offensive by Russian-backed Syrian forces, ahead of a meeting between the Turkish and Russian leaders next week.
Ankara fears that an escalation in Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in northwestern Syria, could push a new wave of refugees towards Turkey, which has hosted around 4 million Syrians since the conflict began ten years ago.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is expected to raise this issue when he meets with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on September 29. It is still unclear to what extent Russia’s position will find common ground with Ankara.
Last week, during a meeting between Putin and Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Russian president criticized the presence of foreign troops without a UN mandate.
Three Turkish soldiers were killed on September 11 in Idlib as Syrian regime forces escalate their attacks.
“Russia is frustrated by Turkey’s reluctance to expel Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham from Idlib and is using its warplanes as well as Syrian ground forces to put pressure on Turkey,” Samuel Ramani, professor of politics and relations international organizations at the University of Oxford, told Arab News.
Russia is forcing Turkey to honor its 2018 pledge to separate radicals such as HTS, the dominant group in Idlib, from other Idlib rebels. But Ankara rejects claims it broke its promise.
HTS distanced itself from Al Qaeda and rebranded itself as a moderate rebel group – an image metamorphosis in front of the international community. But it is still identified by the United States, the UN Security Council and Turkey as a terrorist group.
“Turkey does not view such a limited escalation as a major cross-border threat, but would certainly fear an influx of refugees if Assad and Putin led a much larger assault on Idlib, which mirrored the events of late 2019 and early 2020,” Ramani said. “Turkish troops are therefore there to prevent such a scenario from happening and to guarantee the status quo until the Putin-Erdogan meeting.”
However, Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad urged Turkey to immediately withdraw its forces from Syrian soil and said he viewed the Turkish presence as an act of occupation.
Ramani said that in the past, Putin-Erdogan meetings have often reduced conflict in Syria, for example after Operation Peace Spring in October 2019 and Operation Spring Shield in March 2020: âSo the hope is that it happens again. “
On September 24, Erdogan said he expects Russia to change its approach towards Syria because the Syrian regime poses a threat to Turkey along the southern border.
At the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, Erdogan addressed the Syrian crisis, saying that “as a country that has protected human dignity in the Syrian crisis, we no longer have the potential or the tolerance to absorb much. new waves of immigration “.
Oytun Orhan, Syria studies coordinator at the ORSAM think tank in Ankara, said Turkey attaches importance to maintaining its place in the Syrian game.
“If he withdraws completely from the region, he will stay out of the final stages and have no say when a political process in Syria begins,” Orhan told Arab News.
According to Orhan, Turkey is also concerned about the presence of foreign fighters and radical elements in Idlib.
“If there was a regime offensive, they would probably flow to the Turkish border and pose a threat to the security not only of Turkey but of the world community,” he said.
Experts say that while this exposes the limits of their cooperation, Turkish-Russian relations are likely to survive this latest escalation, as both sides have too much to lose if their relationship is damaged.
Orhan said the deployment of Turkish troops ahead of the Putin-Erdogan meeting is a symbolic move to gain influence at the negotiating table.
âAlthough Russia supports the Assad regime, it also takes note of the Turkish presence in the region, as well as cooperation in the fields of energy and the defense industry. He doesn’t want to undermine them, but tries to use the Idlib card as a bargaining chip whenever there is a crisis in bilateral relations, âhe said.
Russia reportedly carried out around 200 airstrikes on Idlib in September. Some of the attacks targeted areas near Turkish military posts in the province. Turkey has around 80 military bases and observation posts in Idlib.
âAlthough Turkish and Syrian intelligence agencies have met in the past, Russia has been pushing Turkey for years to open a diplomatic channel of communication with the Syrian regime. But Ankara is not prepared to take this step. I expect the Erdogan-Putin meeting to defuse tension in Idlib, but the two leaders will test their resolve before they sit down at the negotiating table, âOrhan said.