Can Idlib Ruin the Turkey-Russia Entente?
Russia and Turkey are not natural partners in Syria, but share enough overlapping interests to maintain dialogue about the direction of the conflict. Ankara’s position in the Syrian civil war has been shaped by its initial risk averse approach to the conflict and refusal to use military force to try and shape outcomes. In eastern Syria, Ankara was initially unable to upend the American war strategy and its reliance on the Syrian Kurds, a group Turkey has labeled a terrorist organization. In Syria’s West, the Russian entrance into the war directly challenged Ankara’s support for the anti-regime insurgency, which had made considerable gains in Idlib before September 2015.
The Russian—Turkish entente stemmed from a shared interest: Forcing the United States to leave Syria. Ankara settled on this policy in late 2016, after a period of tension with Moscow, after the Turkish Air Force shot down a Russian bomber after it violated Ankara’s airspace. The shoot down prompted a change in Russia’s bombing of the opposition, severing Turkey’s access to Aleppo city, and upending a joint Turkish—American plan to fight Islamic State in northern Aleppo. After Ankara’s defeat, the Turkish government narrowed its interests and chose to focus on driving a wedge between the United States and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), with the intent of forcing an American withdrawal from Syria.
Russia enabled Turkey’s strategy. It also gave Ankara a mechanism to discuss broader, post-conflict issues, like drafting a new Syrian constitution. This allowed for Turkey to try and wrangle from Moscow concessions on limiting future concessions to the Syrian Kurds, particularly any effort to decentralize a future government. Further, Ankara abandoned its policy of restraint and, with Russian acquiescence, launched three cross border military interventions in Syria. The first two operations, Euphrates Shield and Olive Branch, targeted the SDF’s supply lines across the border, and created two interlocking zones that Ankara now occupies. These zones allowed for Ankara to reverse the refugee flow, a policy goal since 2015. The third operation, Peace Spring, was directly tied to the goal of forcing an American withdrawal. Turkey was, for the most part, successful. Washington retains a presence in Syria, but its mission is now tied up in a nebulous effort to “secure oil fields” with a much reduced force deployed far enough away from Turkey’s border to be of little concern to Ankara. However, with Russia and the regime backfilling areas the U.S. left, Ankara is still left with the reality of a great power working with the SDF. In this sense, Turkish policy has failed, even though the United States has left the border.
Turkey’s Syria policy depended, in large part, on the maintenance of a status quo in Idlib. The territory allowed for Ankara to better manage the menagerie of militias it has cobbled together under the label of the Syrian National Army, and which Turkey nominally represents in peace talks with Russia and Iran. A relatively safe Idlib also kept Syrians bottled up inside the country, rather than settling in terrible conditions along the closed Turkish border.
To support these efforts, Turkey made a series of concessions to Russia, including a pledge to deal with Al Qaeda linked elements inside Idlib and to allow for the free movement of people along the M4 and M5 highways. Ankara was unable to fulfill either of these pledges, largely because the Al Qaeda linked factions in Idlib are enmeshed within the broader opposition Ankara supports, and because the groups opposed to it are weak. Russia also has to manage its client, Bashar al Assad, who has made clear that he will continue to fight until he has taken over the entirety of country.
As the regime began its offensive in Idlib, Ankara had few options, outside of increasing support to its proxies. With Russia guaranteeing the regime’s security, and deploying forces alongside certain Syrian Arab Army (SAA) units and protecting them with aircraft and surface to air missiles, the SAA can reasonably assume that any potential Turkish military action will be highly circumscribed — and not all that threatening to the survival of the regime. It appears likely that the regime will take the M5 in the next few days. After that, it may pause, choosing to wait for better weather to finish the fight for the M4, or to give Russia space to work out an arrangement with Turkey for the entirety of the Idlib pocket.
For Ankara, the consequences of a total collapse in Idlib risk forcing people to their border. Turkey is certain to try and force these people into Afrin or Northern Aleppo, but these enclaves are small, with poor services and security. A mass movement of people will exacerbate these two conditions, risking total chaos in territory Ankara administers and has tried to hold up as examples of a policy success.
Despite the tensions, Turkey and Russia still have an incentive to talk. Ankara depends on Russia to ensure its place at the table to draft a new Syrian constitution, presumably written in a way to minimize Turkish concerns about the Syrian Kurds. Moscow, most probably, still wants Turkey to arrange for the surrender of the proxies it supports. Otherwise, it will have to remain engaged in combat operations for at least six more months (if not more), and then still face the reality of helping the regime secure territory from a diffuse insurgency with access to the Turkish border and external sources of weaponry. Ankara can feed the insurgency at will, perhaps as part of an effort to wrangle concessions from Moscow, or cut it off deemed to be in Turkish national interests.
These conditions ensure that dialogue between Russia and Turkey will not end abruptly. However, Russian actions risk completely disrupting Turkish policy in Syria. In the short-term, Ankara is certain to continue to engage with Moscow, perhaps using an expected operational pause as a means to try and win certain concessions from Russia to try and slow the offensive. Ankara should also be expected to try and reinforce positions inside the highways to try and gain some leverage with Russia and the regime and to at least try and manage the mass movement of people towards the Turkish border. However, the regime is certain to want to continue to push towards the border to try and cease external sources of support for an insurgency it has deemed a threat. These dynamics do allow for continued Turkish—Russian dialogue, but the anti-American synthesis that underpinned early cooperation is no longer as salient, and Russo-Turkish security divergences will continue to mar the relationship.