Turkey on Wednesday assailed Russia and Iran for failing to stop the Syrian government’s ongoing military offensive in Syria’s rebel enclave of Idlib, threatening the prospects of Ankara’s continued cooperation with Tehran and Moscow in the Syrian conflict.
Reflecting Ankara’s growing alarm, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu lashed out, saying, “Russia and Iran must stop the Syrian regime. They should realize their duties as guarantor countries.”
Ankara on Tuesday summoned the Iranian and Russian ambassadors and delivered an official protest.
As part of what is known as the Astana Process, Turkey, Iran and Russia agreed to create a “de-escalation zone” in Idlib. As part of the plan, Ankara deployed soldiers in the enclave to monitor a cease-fire between Syrian government forces and rebels. Damascus and Moscow do not consider radical jihadist groups based in Idlib a part of the agreement.
But Idlib borders Turkey, and the Syrian offensive, due to its proximity to Turkish territory, is raising alarm in Ankara.
“When Damascus talks about clearing Idlib, those jihadists will be pushed toward the Turkish border,” warned Aydin Selcen, a former senior Turkish diplomat who served in the region. “There [are] also up to two million Syrians in Idlib, and there might be another exodus again [to Turkey], because those living in Idlib now are already the ones who have moved from elsewhere in Syria. They do not have anywhere to go. They also do not look like they have the character to cut a deal with [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad]. That is why there could be an exodus.”
Overwhelmed before election
Turkey is already hosting more than three million Syrians. Observers warn that with growing public unease over the current refugee presence, another major influx would be politically damaging to the government and president. Both face re-election battles within the next 18 months.
But Moscow and Tehran have their own grievances with Ankara over its military presence in Idlib in enforcing the de-escalation zone.
“There is a different understanding of the Turkish motives and the expectations of Moscow and Tehran,” said Haldun Solmazturk, head of the 21st Century Turkey Institute, an Ankara-based research organization.
Solmazturk says Ankara’s priority is using its military presence in Idlib to monitor and apply pressure to the Kurdish militia, the YPG, in the neighboring Afrin enclave of Syria. Ankara considers the YPG a terrorist organization linked to an insurgency in Turkey.
“Turkey’s primary aim is to control Afrin,” Solmazturk said. “I can’t see any indication that [the] Turkish government [has] any intention at all to deal with jihadists in Idlib. So from the very beginning, there was a point of conflict between Russia and Turkey. There was already a confidence gap between [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, which is now growing.”
Tehran and Moscow back rival sides in the Syrian civil war, and questions over the sustainability of Ankara’s cooperation with Tehran and Moscow have been frequently raised. Some analysts see the current dispute as the beginning of the end of cooperation on Syria.
“This brings us as if toward the end of this episode of temporary cooperation between Turkey, Russia and Iran,” Selcen said.
Ankara’s cooperation with Moscow in Syria has given impetus to a deepening of relations among the historical regional rivals. The Turkish leadership’s growing ties with Russia have caused increasing unease among Turkey’s NATO allies. However, analysts suggest that if there is a breakdown in cooperation over Syria, Ankara will likely act cautiously to try to maintain its relationship with Moscow.
“In terms of Russia, Russia does not treat the countries kindly that leave its orbit,” warned analyst Atilla Yesilada of Global Source Partners, an analysis firm. “We are really dependent on Russia in terms of energy, so there would be a cost involved. I don’t see they [Turkish leaders] have that much maneuvering room.”
With limited energy resources, Turkey relies heavily on Russian natural gas.
But analysts point out Moscow also has a vested interest in continuing its efforts to maintain its ties with Ankara.
“The disagreement between Moscow and Ankara will become clearer,” Selcen predicted. “It’s another priority for Mr. Putin to peel Turkey away from the Western coalition of NATO, so it’s in Moscow’s interest to keep the three capitals, Ankara, Damascus, and Tehran, in the same boat.”