Turkish-backed rebels fire an anti-aircraft gun southeast of Idlib on February 24, 2020. Photo: AFP

Tensions between Ankara and Moscow are soaring as heavy fighting rages in the enclave of Idlib in northwest Syria as the Russia-backed Syrian army advances deep into the last rebel-held stronghold and Turkey threatens to unleash a counter-offensive to protect its proxies in the region.

But although Moscow and Ankara have so far failed to reach any agreement, the possibility of a full-fledged military conflict between the two remains unlikely. 

For the last few days, Russian aviation has been pounding an offensive carried out by Islamic militants, who are supported by Turkish artillery, against the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). The Turkish defense ministry reported that two Turkish servicemen had been killed and five more injured in an airstrike in the same area. 

The military escalation in Idlib started in January, when the SAA resumed an operation aimed at conquering the last rebel-held enclave on Syrian territory. 

Turkey, the main backer of the local opposition against Syrian President Bashar Assad, has been amassing a growing number of forces in the region – about 9,000 soldiers, according to some estimates.

Turkey-backed Islamists and other proxies have so far failed to halt the Syrian advance, which has seized a significant part of the rebel region, including the strategically important M5 highway connecting Aleppo with Damascus. 

A major humanitarian catastrophe is brewing as the Idlib region is home to three million people. 

Diplomacy stalling 

So far, diplomacy has failed to resolve the conflict.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters that the 2018 Astana de-escalation agreements sponsored by Russia “have fallen into silence.” He blamed Moscow for failing to prevent Syrian troops from advancing into the Idlib region.

In turn, Moscow has been accusing Ankara of failing to cleanse Idlib of radical Islamic groups, which have been carrying out attacks into territory controlled by Damascus. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov justified Damascus’ response to those “unacceptable provocations.” 

Erdogan has been threatening a full-fledged intervention into Idlib. That would almost inevitably result in a direct clash with Russia. 

Yet despite the growing tensions, channels of communications between Ankara and Moscow remain wide open. During a phone call last Friday, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Erdogan agreed that the only possible solution is implementing a new version of the 2018 Sochi agreements. 

According to the original accord, Assad’s forces would restrain themselves from advancing into the rebel-held territory. In return, Turkey would ensure all rebel fighters would withdraw 20km from the line of contact and separate the radical Islamists from moderate anti-Assad opponents. 

The new pact aims to establish a new buffer zone with joint Russian-Turkish patrols. It remains to be seen whether the two sides can agree on where the line defining the respective spheres of influence should be drawn. 

Putin and Erdogan will meet in March, together with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to discuss the crisis. 

Interests at stake 

The recapture of Idlib is of paramount importance for Assad, as it would allow him to retake control of the two main highways, M4 and M5, connecting the country’s major cities. 

“By recapturing the two highways, Assad will speed up the revival of the Syrian economy,” said Alexey Khlebnikov, a Middle East expert at the Russian International Affairs Council. 

Turkey wants to prevent the Syrian army’s incursion into the province since that would result in millions of civilians seeking shelter in Turkish territory – which is already flooded with Syrian refugees. 

According to Vadim Makarenko, the head of the Moscow State Linguistic University Regional Studies department, Turkey is using the Idlib refugee issue as a justification for meddling in Syria and influencing its political future.  

“By preserving his foothold in Idlib, Erdogan wants to make sure the pro-Turkey, Sunni opposition will play a key role in the future of post-war Syria,”  Makarenko said. 

The Turkish president has been tapping into nationalistic sentiments within Turkish society by conducting an aggressive foreign policy in Syria, and a further escalation in Idlib might reinforce its support base. 

Mitigating circumstances

According to most experts, the possibility of conflict between Moscow and Ankara remains highly unlikely.

Turkey is a NATO member – albeit one that is at odds with much of the NATO leadership – which could act as a brake on Russian operations against it.

Moreover, open conflict would massively compromise economic cooperation between the two countries, which this year was stepped up with the opening of the Turkstream project, a new gas pipeline bringing Russian gas to Europe via Turkey. 

Also, any military escalation in Idlib would inevitably compromise Russian-Turkish cooperation around Syria’s northeast border, where Russian and Turkish forces conduct joint patrols. 

A tactical issue is the Russian air force, which fully controls Syrian airspace and so serves as a further deterrent against a possible Turkish incursion into Idlib.

“Turkish aviation cannot operate effectively in Syria,” points out Kirill Zharov, a Turkey-focused journalist at Russia’s TASS news agency. “Without the support of the air force, Turkish ground forces would have a hard time operating,”

Both Damascus and Moscow understand that a full-fledged confrontation with Turkey over Idlib would lead to bloodshed and a massive humanitarian catastrophe.

That is why, according to Khlebnikov, neither has much appetite for reconquering the whole region. But there are other reasons too, which argue against major contact – at least in the near term.

“Moscow and Damascus are mainly concerned about taking back control of the highways M4 and M5 and establishing a buffer zone along those lines,” he told Asia Times. 

“Assad is likely to leave Turkey the headache of dealing with the radical Islamist groups in the rest of the province,” Khlebnikov added.  

However, this solution is likely to be only a short-term one.

According to Zharov, re-establishing full control over Idlib is essential for Damascus, given its key strategic importance. “Expecting that Putin and Assad will give up Idlib to pro-Turkish rebels would be wrong.

Makarenko agrees. “Control over Idlib is of key importance to Assad, as it provides security to the cities of Latakia and Aleppo,” he told Asia Times. “As long as Idlib is not returned under Damascus control, Assad won’t be able to claim a complete victory.”