While Moscow shows steady support to the Syrian regime offensive in Idlib, the last opposition stronghold, analysts argue it cannot risk a total falling out with Turkey.
The latest skirmishes between the Russia-backed Assad regime and Turkey in Idlib, the last opposition bastion, have brought Ankara and Moscow close to a major confrontation as the two sides differ on the future of Syria.
Turkey supports opposition forces in Syria while Russia has backed the Assad regime since the beginning of the Syrian civil war. Ankara and Moscow reached an agreement in Sochi to create de-confliction zone in Idlib in 2018, a move widely appreciated by international experts to minimise violence in the war-torn region, but recent regime attacks reversed all those gains, inflicting major cracks on the deal and bilateral diplomacy.
Many security analysts in Moscow and Ankara are debating Russia's appetite for war in Idlib, and the extent to which President Vladimir Putin can test Turkey's patience.
Esref Yalinkilicli, a Moscow-based Eurasian analyst, thinks that Russia, which has several joint projects with Turkey from a Black Sea natural gas pipeline to S-400 deal, cannot “risk” a complete breakup with Ankara.
“In the last instance, Russia has no luxury to discard Turkey because of the Idlib dilemma,” Yalinkilicli told TRT World, citing that the country’s internal problems are even more complicated than its external issues.
President Putin has led Russia for two decades without any interruption, shifting his role between the president and prime minister from time to time, pretty much remaking the state in his image after the disastrous end of the superpower communist Soviet Union in the late 1980s.
But his term will end in 2024 and as the state desperately tries to find a way to keep him in power even after his term ends, believing there is no better alternative to his rule.
In January, Putin, whose approval ratings are decreasing, demanded vast changes in the country’s governmental structure including major amendments to the constitution, triggering the cabinet to resign and installing a new government, which is supposed to implement his proposed reforms.
As a result, sacrificing its comprehensive relations with Turkey to support Damascus will just compound Russian problems as the country’s struggling economy faces large sanctions from the US, according to Yalinkilicli.
While the US, which is the biggest economy and the military power in the world, wants to disengage from its interventions in the Middle East after spending billions of dollars, Russia with a declining economy can not further “afford” its adventure in Syria, Yalinkilicli thinks.
On top of all that, Moscow supports a murderous regime, which has no second thoughts about killing its own people, forcing half of the country’s population to flee to other countries. “The regime, which has no legitimacy in the eyes of the international community, can not stay in power because simply Russia backs it,” Yalinkilicli viewed.
There are still fresh memories in Russia from the Soviets’ calamitous defeat in Afghanistan, where Moscow backed a puppet government, eventually triggering a powerful rebellion, which overthrew it later on.
Russian brinkmanship in Syria
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already signalled that a large Turkish offensive is “a matter of time” to clear out the regime forces from areas around Ankara’s observation posts in Idlib.
On Thursday, two more Turkish soldiers have been killed by airstrikes in Idlib, where Ankara has recently deployed thousands of soldiers to prevent a regime onslaught against civilians, setting a possible confrontation stage between the regime and the Turkish army.
“It will be Russia’s fault if it led to a sort of confrontation between them. Turkey can’t afford any concessions, already losing 14 soldiers in non combat situations due to Assad’s violations of the Sochi agreement and one million refugees are heading towards it,” said Dr Ali Bakeer, an Ankara-based political analyst.
“Unfortunately, Russia supported Assad’s actions which also resulted in non compliance of its side to article 1 & 2 of the same deal. Unlike Turkey, Moscow can give some concessions that guarantees an understanding with Ankara and preserve the status-quo in Idlib while making progress in the political process,” Bakeer told TRT World.
But it’s not exactly clear what Russians think about those concessions.
“Until now, Russians have allowed the regime to penetrate into Idlib in a way of controlled tensions. Since the Sochi agreement in September 2018, they have enabled the regime progress on the ground in Idlib,” Yalinkilicli said.
While Russia might want to ease tensions in Idlib, “the situation appears to be out of Moscow’s control, particularly, on the ground,” Yalinkilicli said.
Under Russian supervision, the regime’s “impertinence” and “aggressiveness” has reached a level, where they think they can do whatever they want to do in Idlib, according to the Moscow-based analyst.
“Sometimes Russians also resort in a particular rhetoric, where they try to say that they could not control Assad to excuse his cruelty,” he said.
Yalinkilicli thinks the situation has already reached an urgency and that the disagreement between Moscow and Ankara could only be addressed by the top leadership.
“I expect a face-to-face meeting between Erdogan and Putin, which could address the current debacle,” the analyst said.
But time is also running fast for both sides as more than 900,000 people leave their homes to flee from Assad's brutal winter offensive under below-zero Celsius degrees toward the Turkish border, making it the largest displacement of the nine-year civil war.
“It is hard to predict how things end because of many of the moving parts and the several involved players,” Bakeer said.
“However, in the case of not reaching a deal between Russia and Turkey, Ankara has no choice but to push back and force Assad to withdraw from some areas in Idlib and commit to the Sochi agreement, otherwise it will be forced to receive up to 3 million more of Syrian refugees as a result of Assad military operations,” Bakeer viewed.
A possible Turkish operation over Idlib could aim to join the provincial territories with other Turkish-run regions in northern Syria, ensuring a political space where people opposed to Assad rule could rebuild their lives and gain a sense of normalcy after a horrible civil war.
“Turkey – NATO’s second largest military force – might be poised to win big should it face only the Syrian Arab Army, according to Mikhail Khodarenok, a retired colonel in the Russian Air Defense Forces and former General Staff officer,” Russian Today reported.
“Erdogan has enough combat and operational capabilities as well as military equipment and personnel to overrun Assad’s forces within days,” Khodarenok told RT.