February 23, 2024
Idlib Conflict. Turkey’s struggle with Russia over Idlib
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Idlib Conflict. Turkey’s struggle with Russia over Idlib

By Rustam Taghizade

Turkey has launched four military operations in northern Syria since 2016. Each military operation serves a specific purpose and in the region responds to rapidly changing scenarios. Turkey’s military operations in Syria have strained relations with the United States. At the peak of relations, of course, Turkey’s decision to deploy a Russian S-400 missile system is related to the Syrian issue. In addition, it should be noted that Turkey’s intervention in Syria has led to the management of the flow of refugees. Turkey has formed a new mechanism of influence on the European Union. As a result, Turkey’s foreign policy has led to an increase in its international prestige. Turkish troops first conducted Operation Euphrates Shield in 2016. Turkey’s intervention in Syria has led to a unification of Russia’s common strategic interests. Turkey skillfully used the levers in his hands. He has indicated that he will use Syrian refugees to negotiate the borders of the eastern Mediterranean coast with Europe. Turkey has deployed troops in Libya. Turkish drones have played an active role in Syria, Libya and the South Caucasus. This led to a change in the regional status quo.

Operation Spring Shield (February-March 2020)

A military operation took place in the Idlib region of Syria. As a result of Turkish air strikes, the Syrian regime disrupted its plan to take Idlib, the last point of Syrian territory controlled by rebel forces. After the “Spring Shield” operation:

  1. The advance of the Syrian Arab army to Idlib was prevented.
  2. The flow of refugees to Turkey has been stopped.

Syrian conflict between Turkey and Russia:

In the last decade, no issue in Turkish-Russian relations has been formed before the crisis in Syria. In a crisis of mutual interest, he created a model of partnership between the two. When there was a new geopolitical crisis involving both Ankara and Moscow, they almost impulsively tried to apply this model to the crisis. In other words, although the Syrian crisis is centrally responsible for the current form of Turkish-Russian relations, it is also a crisis of its own, and the dynamics of these relations are unlikely to be easily repeated in other contexts. In the early stages of the Arab uprisings, Turkey seemed to be on the winning side and Russia on the losing side. In this regard, two dates are important to show how the fortunes of the Arab uprisings, their supporters, and their rivals have changed. In 2012, the region was believed to be on the verge of a new regional order. As a result of the waves of protests, a regional order was implemented in several Arab states with regime change. The presidents of the following countries have either resigned, been overthrown or assassinated: Zin al-Abidin Ben Ali of Tunisia in 2011, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in 2011, Muammar Gaddafi of Libya in 2011 and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen in 2012. The collapse of the Assad regime in Syria is approaching in Turkey. This possibility has increased Turkey’s confidence and conviction that the region is on the verge of a new order. In this scenario, Turkey considered Russia and Iran to be the losers of regional transformation.

 Turkish and Russian game in Syria. 

With this information, Turkey and Russia improved their relations in order to put aside the tension caused by the jet incident in mid-2016. This event reduced the maneuvering opportunities of Turkey and allied Syrian opposition groups in the Syrian theater. In this regard, Moscow’s early stance against the coup attempt in Turkey on July 15, 2016, significantly changed the nature of its relations for the better. Less than 40 days after the coup attempt, Turkey launched its first border operation in Syria – Operation Euphrates Shield. Focusing on ISIS-held areas between northwestern Syria’s Cerablus, Azaz and al-Bab, the operation’s immediate goal was to clear Turkey’s border of ISIS. However, by capturing al-Babi, the operation also prevented the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) from establishing full territorial proximity between the three different cantons in northern Syria. Territorial integration with the enclaves of northeastern Syria) – this was the strategic goal of the same operation. Meanwhile, Moscow’s green light, Ankara launched a military offensive against the PYD-YPG in Afrin on January 20, 2018. With this operation, Turkey captured Afrin and almost completely stopped the PYD-YPG’s presence in northwestern Syria – with the exception of small areas of Tel Rifat and Manbij. Turkey’s re-entry into Syria, and thus Ankara’s achievement of its operational and strategic goals, has encouraged Turkey to take part in Russia’s processes on Syria. In return, Turkey’s participation legitimized Russian-led initiatives (the Astana and Sochi processes). This participation also reduced the burden and costs of a civil war for Russia, as these processes rebuilt the war and made it easier for the Assad regime to retake more territory at a lower price than the opposition. In this regard, on December 20, 2016, the foreign ministers of Turkey, Russia and Iran met in Moscow to launch a trilateral process in Syria, which was later renamed the Astana Process. Through this tripartite reception, the three actors will then hold 14 rounds of meetings within the Astana process before convening the Sochi conference on the political process in Syria on January 30, 2018. As for this, various disputes over Idlib province, Moscow and Ankara outside this tripartite framework have been resolved in a bilateral framework, often excluding Iran. In other words, in the Idlib issue, the Astana trio has been largely replaced by the Astana duo. For this reason, Turkish-Russian relations in Syria have been established through trilateral and bilateral processes.  

Despite this framework of cooperation, Turkish-Russian policy in Syria has remained particularly competitive and prone to conflict – both actors support different sides in the conflict. In addition, Russia wants the Assad regime to control as much of Syria as possible, ideally all of Syria, although Turkey’s presence in Syria is increasingly seen to be long-term, not temporary. Moreover, according to the 2018 Sochi Agreement between Moscow and Ankara, Turkey was to deal with the issue of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a former al-Qaeda member known as a terrorist. It is organized by the United Nations (UN) and is forced to withdraw from the areas it controls in Idlib. So far, Turkey has not fulfilled this promise. Moreover, instead of fighting terrorism, Ankara seems to have set the agenda for radicalization and transformation with this group. Neither side, especially Russia, has hesitated to draw red lines when its interests are threatened. The most obvious example of this was the killing of 36 Turkish soldiers by the Russian-Syrian regime on February 28, 2020 during the conflict over Idlib. There are clear examples in the policy of both Russia and Turkey during this flare-up. First, both actors pursue a policy of military consolidation (or increasing the costs of the other side) on the ground. Second, these escalator periods were later agreed through the Erdogan-Putin summits. These summits resulted in new agreements or what could be considered a ceasefire policy, and therefore a new fragile status quo that was easily broken during subsequent clashes. This shows “fragility and resilience” or the testing and stable dynamics of Turkish-Russian relations in Syria and abroad – in the sense that the mismatch of Turkish and Russian desires and interests has made relations fragile.

 Finally, Turkish-Russian cooperation in Syria has helped increase the influence and capabilities of both sides, along with Iran’s influence in determining the main course of the war. In return, the role and influence of Western countries in Syria has diminished. Similarly, the Astana and Sochi processes have thwarted the UN-led and Western-backed Geneva process. However, as the Astana process is still large-scale, the Geneva road may become more relevant to the political process. However, we can say that there are some problems here.

1. From Russia’s point of view, Turkey’s military presence in Syria is the biggest and only obstacle to a military solution to the conflict. Russia’s desire to resolve Syria, as well as Chechnya, is permanently blocked by the Turkish army.

2. The presence of Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) in Idlib will always be an excuse for Russia to attack the region. The attacks on the Syrian National Army in Afrin underscore that HTS is not Russia’s real motive. Nevertheless, the pretext of fighting the HTS gives Russia a legal position and strengthens its hand in diplomatic negotiations.   

3. Third, although Turkey fulfilled part of the March agreement, it carried out joint patrols on the M4 highway and established a security corridor, Russia withdrew from the patrol service for fear of attacks by al-Qaeda underground elements . Turkey continues these patrol services. On the other hand, Russia has not fulfilled its obligations with the YPG. According to the Turkish-Russian agreement in October 2019, Russia is obliged to completely remove the YPG from Tal Rifaat, Manbij and 30 km east of the Euphrates River. 

In conclusion: Syria is a place of strategic importance from the point of view of both Turkey and Russia is receiving. There are various reasons why both countries are interfering in the Syrian crisis is present. Remaining from the Cold War and Russia when evaluated from the Russian point of view Tartus, the only naval base outside, and therefore its presence in Syria to protect, to forget the reactions that took place in the international community after the occupation of Crimea, to prove that it is an effective force in the international arena, to continue its presence in the Middle East. The reasons can be shown, such as the effect. From the point of view of Turkey, the subject is life it is seen that it is important. With the start of the civil war, Turkey is a serious customer confronted with the current, a large number of harassment with long-range weapons from Syria to their lands were shot and experienced casualties as a result of these attacks, in terms of border security Serious hardships, a significant part of the 911 km long black border PKK terrorist is under the control of the PYD, the Syrian branch of the organization, and the national security of Turkey directional threats have emerged. Therefore, there are no borders to Syria Reasons for Turkey’s intervention in the crisis, which has the longest black border with Russia and this country are different from each other. The civil war that is taking place right next to Turkey while interference is a necessity in the face of the negative externalities of this war, Russia’s that its intervention is more about maximizing output in domestic and foreign policy is seen. As a result, we can say that the ceasefire between Turkey and Russia is not strong. However, Turkey’s military operations since 2020 have significantly strengthened its image. After the military operations in Syria, we saw the active activity of Turkish troops in Libya and Turkish drones in Karabakh. Turkey is also at the negotiating table with Russia and the United States.

Rustam Taghizade

Political Scientist

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