Following Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s speech in response to escalated tension in Idlib, there are a few likely scenarios to emerge.
The Assad regime’s offensive in Idlib province has escalated tensions between Ankara and Damascus, displacing more than 700,000 people, most of whom are fleeing to the Turkish border, according to the UN.
As Damascus continues to attack, the casualties pile up from either the violence or due to freezing winter conditions, worsening the refugee crisis to levels unseen for years.
On Tuesday, the regime took control of the crucial M5 highway, which connects Damascus to Aleppo. Before that happened, Assad’s forces attacked Turkey’s observatory posts in the region’s de-escalation zones, which were formed after a 2018 agreement between Moscow and Ankara.
As the Assad regime attacks rage against civilians, opposition groups and Turkish forces alike, Moscow, the main backer of Damascus, has chosen to look away, failing to abide by the Sochi deal and other agreements, angering Ankara.
Russian aloofness led Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan yesterday to declare that Ankara will not be bound to agreements signed with Russians regarding Idlib if Assad does not stop.
"If any harm comes to our soldiers in observation posts [in Idlib] or anywhere [in Syria], I declare from here that we will hit regime forces everywhere regardless of the Sochi deal," an angry Erdogan said, during a speech in Ankara.
"We will do this by any means necessary, by air or ground, without hesitating, without allowing for any stalling," he declared. But later Erdogan also indicated that Turkey wants to de-escalate tensions through negotiations with Moscow, leveraging Russians to force Assad to abide by the ceasefire in Idlib.
This week Ankara hosted both Russian and American envoys to Syria in order to develop a roadmap to address the Idlib debacle.
In light of recent political negotiations and military actions on the ground, it seems three different political scenarios may emerge from the current Syrian impasse.
The Sochi-Astana revival
“There is no need for us to be engaged in a conflict or a serious contradiction with Russia at this stage,” Erdogan said last week.
Moscow also appears to be trying to find a way out from the recent crisis, releasing a conciliatory statement after Erdogan talked to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the phone on Wednesday.
"The two leaders continued discussions on various aspects of resolving the Syrian crisis, primarily in the context of the worsening situation in the Idlib de-escalation zone,” the statement said.
“The importance of full implementation of the existing Russian-Turkish agreements, including the Sochi memorandum of September 17, 2018, was noted. For this purpose, it was agreed to conduct additional contacts through the relevant departments," it added.
The statement indicated that Russia and Turkey might create another political framework to replace the Sochi agreement, inserting other mechanisms into the existing setup in the framework of the Astana peace process, to address the rising crisis between Ankara and Damascus.
However, if the Assad regime continues to march across Idlib province no matter what the Russians say, or if Russia simply pretends to be playing a mediator between Ankara and Damascus to give diplomatic cover for the regime’s brutal conduct, a military escalation could be inevitable between Turkey and the regime.
Erdogan has already indicated that Turkey will not tolerate any other attack — even if just minor harm is inflicted upon Turkish soldiers — meaning Ankara has been preparing itself for a possible military confrontation with Damascus.
Turkey also said that it will not withdraw its observatory posts from the region at any cost and if the regime does not pull back from those areas before the end of this month, “Ankara will have to do this job itself," according to Erdogan.
After the regime killed seven Turkish soldiers and a contractor last week, Turkey’s defence minister referred to the country’s plan B, warning Damascus not to test Turkish patience.
"We, on every occasion, say 'do not force us, otherwise our Plan B and Plan C are ready'," Hulusi Akar said. Without specifying what these plans are, however, he appeared to be implying another possible military operation.
An international buffer zone
Another potential scenario is to create a NATO or UN-mandated safe zone in Idlib, where millions of refugees could be protected from Assad’s brutal attacks.
After the Russians did nothing to stop the regime attacks in Idlib, Turkey has turned to its NATO ally, the US, to find a resolution to prevent another version of the 2016 Aleppo massacre.
In Idlib, the NATO allies might agree to create a safe zone, which could be expanded into other Turkish-controlled territories in northern Syria over time.
The safe zone proposal was originally a Turkish idea raised by Ankara in early 2016 to address the growing refugee crisis and other issues.
But the US rejected it at the time.