With regime forces renewing attacks on rebel-held Idlib in northern Syria, the pact between Ankara and Moscow to build peace in the region is constantly being violated, putting an enormous strain on their bilateral ties.
On January 2, Syrian regime forces fired cluster munitions on a school in the town of Sarmin, which was sheltering people displaced by the Syrian regime’s offensive in Idlib. This attack resulted in the deaths of five children and was followed by a UN Security Council meeting on facilitating the entry of humanitarian aid into Idlib.
In spite of intense pressure from the international community, Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad’s efforts to recapture Idlib continued unabated, and on January 4, the regime forces launched further strikes on rebel-held positions in Idlib and Aleppo.
In addition to its grave humanitarian costs, the Assad regime’s offensive on Idlib could cause Russia and Turkey to suspend their cooperation on de-escalating the conflict in northwestern Syria. The regime force’s repeated assaults on Turkish observation posts, which include a fresh siege against Turkey’s Surman observation post, violates the terms of the Astana peace process, in which Russia and Turkey are both guarantors.
Russia’s air raids in support of the regime forces breach the terms of the September 2018 Sochi Agreement between Russia and Turkey, which created a demilitarised zone between the regime and rebel forces in Idlib.
In order to prevent these peace agreements from collapsing, Turkey has attempted to de-escalate the situation in Idlib. After Russia was implicated in the December 24 missile strikes on a school in the town of Saraqeb, Ibrahim Kalin, Chief Spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for the implementation of a “new ceasefire” and urged Russia to acquiesce to Ankara’s request.
Turkey’s calls for a ceasefire gained enthusiastic support from US President Donald Trump, who stated on December 26 that “Turkey is working hard to stop this carnage”, and urged Russia, Syria and Iran to refrain from killing thousands of civilians in Idlib.
In spite of growing international pressure and Turkey’s calls for a new ceasefire, Russia has continued backing Assad’s offensive in Idlib. Russia’s intransigence can be explained by its belief that a victory for pro-Assad forces in Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold in Syria, would force the international community to recognise Assad’s legitimacy and invest in the Syrian reconstruction process.
Even if the regime offensive does not result in a complete victory, Russia hopes that Assad’s regime will gain control over the M4 and M5 highways which act as supply routes to rebel-held areas of Idlib, and then use siege tactics to force Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS) elements in central Idlib to surrender.
Rising tensions between Russia and Turkey over northeastern Syria and Libya could also stymie short-term hopes for a new ceasefire in Idlib. In spite of Turkey’s October agreement with Russia to create a safe zone in northeastern Syria, concerns are growing in Ankara that Moscow is absconding on its pledge to help Turkey secure its southern border with Syria.
Turkey’s proposed military intervention in support of the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya also conflicts with Russia’s provisions of military support to Libya National Army (LNA) warlord Khalifa Haftar. Given these disagreements, Russia will likely refrain from making concessions on Idlib, in the hopes that Turkey backs down in northeastern Syria or Libya.
While Turkey and Russia are unlikely to forge an immediate new ceasefire agreement in Idlib, the chances of renewed cooperation could grow in the months to come. Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based geopolitical analyst, told TRT World that “high-level negotiations” between Russia and Turkey are continuing, adding: “These disagreements will be contained in one way or another, as both countries still need each other in order to stabilise Syria and Libya.”
Given their mutual dependency, Russia and Turkey could eventually take steps to ameliorate the situation in Idlib and ensure that their bilateral relationship remains cooperative.
The worsening refugee crisis resulting from Assad’s offensive against Idlib could also compel Russia to sue for peace. Between December 12 and 25, an estimated 235,000 civilians were displaced from their homes in Idlib, and their efforts to emigrate from Syria pose severe challenges to both Turkey and Russia. Turkey, which has spent $40 billion on resettling Syrians displaced from the conflict, has insisted that it cannot handle another large-scale refugee influx resulting from Assad’s military activities.
Russia similarly desires the repatriation of Syrian refugees, as it presents a humanitarian face to its military intervention and strengthens Moscow’s partnerships with Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. If Idlib’s civilian population continues to haemorrhage, Russia could urge Assad to temporarily lay down his arms and accept a ceasefire.
Although the UN and Turkey have urged Assad to de-escalate in Idlib, the Syrian regime is unlikely to immediately halt its offensive. Over time, however, Russia’s desire to continue strengthening its partnership with Turkey and Moscow and Ankara’s shared concerns about the Syrian refugee crisis could result in a resumption of a fragile ceasefire in Idlib and ameliorate the region’s humanitarian crisis.