Alwaght- When the US moved its forces out of Syria late last year, the field equations changed fast. Turkey with its anti-Kurdish Operation Peace Spring practically drove the Kurds to unity with the Syrian government in part of the north where they held territory. The Syrian army last month with a rejuvenated push with Russian support moved to recapture Idlib and cleanse it from terrorist fighters, on top of them Al-Nusra Front. The Damascus war on terrorists heated up over the past few days, causing verbal clashes between Russia and Turkey, each of which supporting one side of the Idlib battle.
Turkey established 12 watch posts in Idlib northwest of Syria after it inked a deal with Russia in Sochi in 2018. Turkish officials say that currently at least 4 posts are fully cordoned off by the Syrian army. Al-Quds Al-Araby, a London-Based Arabic-language newspaper, recently reported that between 5 and 7 posts are now encircled by the Syrian forces. The newspaper said that the Syrians have now under encirclement two major posts in Tal Al-Is and Al-Rashidin east of Damascus-Aleppo highway.
One of the most important developments is the control of the highway since Friday by the Syrian army. Russia tried to persuade Turkey to allow full opening of the significant highway before the government operation, Turkey did not agree with the idea, triggering a battle that brought the highway and Ma’arat Al-Nu’man, 33 kilometers south of Idlib, under the government control.
Now government troops are stationed just 3 kilometers from Al-Artab town, one of the shelters of terrorists in the north. According to a report published Sunday by Rai Al-Yaum newspaper, Turkey mobilized 70 tanks, 200 armored vehicles, and 80 artilleries and delivered part of them to Al-Nusra terrorists. Another dangerous move by Turkey was the delivery of air defense systems used by its navy to the militia fighters. Russian sources said that Ankara equipped the fighters with the US-provided air defenses. Also, the armed groups in Idlib de-escalation areas use shoulder-launched anti-plane missiles. Turkey said that it reinforces its posts in Idlib with fresh commandos.
Amid a fast escalation of tensions, Turkish-Russian verbal confrontation has risen. President Recept Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey in comments on the Idlib campaign claimed that Syrian and Russian forces majorly target civilians not terrorists in their push. He added that their leading goal is to take control of those regions and force the residents towards the Turkish borders.
Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova rejected Erdogan’s remarks and the Russian ministry of defense said that Turkey did not separate Syrian opposition from terrorists as the Sochi agreement required.
Their tensions found their way to media fast. After a visit to Pakistan, Erdogan at a press conference said that Turkey has only a training and advisory group in Libya but the opposite side that supports the retired General Khalifa Haftar has sent 2500 fighters from Wagner mercenary group, claimed to have links to Kremlin, to fight against Government of National Accord. He added that 10,000 forces from Sudan, Chad, and other African nations now fight beside Haftar. Responding to the accusations, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov at Munich Security Conference said: “this does not correspond to reality and the real state of affairs.”
As the tensions rise amid equations changes, the US which wants to save its interests in the game in the absence of its forces in the escalation areas tried to show sympathy with Erdogan. On Sunday, US President Donald Trump in a phone conversation with Erdogan expressed concerns about “growing violence in Idlib” and called on Russia to stop the Syrian government’s “atrocities” in Idlib.
But Trump’s real policy is to give Erdogan empty guarantees to keep Turkey involved in the Syrian conflict where the White House seeks to avoid the costs. Trump, US media reported, thanked Erdogan for efforts to prevent “humanitarian disaster” in Idlib.
Amid the tensions, the Turkish defense minister held a meeting with NATO counterparts on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference. Before the meeting, he condemned the Syrian-Russia operation in Idlib and called for it to stop immediately. He further said that Idlib developments invite to concerns, adding that focusing the attacks on civilians will displace hundreds of thousands of Syrians. Germany has reportedly given cash to Turkey to take in Idlib refugees.
Though Turkey threatened to attack Syrian government forces, since last week it intensified its efforts for talks with Russia on Idlib. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu first made the dialogue suggestion. The first round ended without any outcome after three-hour talks between the two countries’ political, military, and intelligence officials in Ankara. Next week was set as the date for the second round.
The talks concentrated on steps that could be taken to ensure peace on ground fronts and promote Idlib de-escalation through political talks. To put pressure on President Vladimir Putin of Russia, Erdogan paid a provocative visit to Ukraine, a country with which Kremlin has chilly ties over the Ukrainian civil war and Crimea Peninsula annexation by Moscow. Russia severely reacted to the visit.
Beside their verbal confrontation, Ankara and Moscow are engaged in intensive talks to avoid unwanted military confrontation. Russian Foreign Ministry stated that on Sunday Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met Turkish counterpart Cavusoglu on the Munich conference sidelines. On Monday, a Cavusoglu-led delegation visited Moscow for a final agreement.
No agreement has yet been reached but Cavusoglu in an interview with a Russian paper said that “no much work has been done yet but we are actively engaged in cooperation with Russia on the case. You can get a final answer to your questions after two countries’ leaders meet in Moscow.”
He said that two sides should not allow their “constructive cooperation” to be undermined by the current crisis. Turkey seeks to keep its posts in Idlib but Russia believes that keeping the posts in the areas of Syrian army presence and control makes no sense. It also insists that Ankara should end its backing to terrorists of Al-Nusra.
In pursuit of its interests, Russia tries to take Turkey away from the US by S-400 air defenses delivery, offering SU-35 fighter jets, and cooperating to build nuclear power plans for Turkey. Such cooperation has interests for Ankara as there is a lack of full harmony between the Turkish and Western interests in Syria in particular and in West Asia region in general, and closeness to Moscow gives it further independence of action in the face of the West. On the other side, Turkey is not in a position to pick a fight against Russia and Syria in Idlib as it does not have full Western backing and further a military confrontation with Russia will deal irreversible damages to its regional interests.