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This picture taken on March 2 shows a view of death and destruction following a Russian air strike in the town of Al Fua in Syria's northwestern Idlib province. Image Credit: AFP

Damascus: What started out as “tension” in Russian-Turkish relations, first over Libya and then over Syria, has seemingly snowballed into an all-out confrontation in the northwestern city of Idlib. To date, 33 Turkish soldiers have been killed by the Syrian Army, raising no objection from the Kremlin, at least 100 Syrian troops and their allies have been killed in the Turkish attacks. Ankara has claimed “2,093 Syrians have been nuetralised”, a term it uses to denote both deaths and injuries. Until not too long ago, presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan got along exceptionally well on Syria. They co-led the Astana peace and hammered out backchannel deals along the way, all at the expense of the war-torn nation.

‘Safe zone’

One of those deals carved out a 100-km safe zone for Erdogan on the Syrian-Turkish border, free from any Kurdish-presence. Another allowed him to march on the cities of Jarablus, Azaz, Al Bab, and Afrin.

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Premature babies in incubators at an Idlib hospital. The Russian and Syrian aerial attacks have taken a terrible toll on the civilian population.

A third, signed at the Black Sea resort of Sochi back in September 2018, called on Turkey to cleanse Idlib from Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS), the Al Qaida branch in Syria. Putin gave Erdogan a deadline that expired in mid-October 2018. He missed it, along with all its extensions, explaining why the Russian President is furious with his Turkish counterpart, and why the two men are sending each other messages — through the Syrians in Idlib.

Different interpretations of Sochi

For his part, Erdogan believes that the Syrian army went too far in its latest offensive in the Idlib countryside, claiming this is a violation of the Sochi Agreement given that they have come dangerously close to the 25 Turkish checkpoints scattered across the province. The Russians insist that their joint operation with the Syrians is aimed at retaking chunks of the Idlib countryside and not Idlib city itself — an argument that Erdogan seemingly does not believe.

Erdogan is also worried by the refugees that would flood Turkey should the Syrian and Russian armies overrun Idlib. The swift re-take of Saraqeb and Maaret Al Numan (respectively east and south of Idlib) made him fear where the Syrian army will stop. They are now eying the strategic Jabal Al Zawieh in the Idlib countryside, a longtime hub for the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which is backed by Turkey.

The Turkish President has set a deadline for them to halt all operations, which has now passed, and he is determined to go full board with a military response to prevent a government retake of Idlib.

Luring the US, scaring the EU

Pro-Russian media is accusing Erdogan of acting unilaterally in Idlib, in violation of Sochi. They are also furious with him for trying to rally the Americans to his side, after he said that one Turkish drone killed nine Hezbollah operatives in Idlib, along with military personnel from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Meanwhile, he is also trying to add pressure on EU to support him, threatening to flood them with Syrian refugees. “The situation is very dangerous” said Amanda Paul, senior policy analyst at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre. Speaking to Gulf News, she explained: “Erdogan has plunged Turkey so far in that he cannot step back without losing face. So far Turkey’s allies in the West have not been ready to back up Ankara in Syria.”

Expanded checkpoints

Erdogan and Putin have spoken over the telephone and are due to meet in Brussels on March 5. Among other things, the Turkish leader is asking for additional guarantees that his checkpoints will remain intact and unharmed in Idlib, and that they get increased from 25 to 50. Sochi had given him 12 checkpoints only, a number that Erdogan has already exceeded.

Monitoring mechanisms

The Turkish president is also asking for a mechanism to monitor future violations in Idlib, something that was visibly lacking at the Sochi Agreement of 2018. The Russians don’t mind a joint Turkish-Russian monitoring team, even if it includes Iran, their co-guarantor at Astana, but this will surely be vetoed by the West. Erdogan wants an international monitoring team, however, mandated trough a UN Resolution. If that happens, Putin will surely veto it the Security Council, and so will China. He insists on keeping Idlib in the hands of Turkey and Russia only, and not internationalising the problem.

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Displaced Syrian children speak with Turkish troops in Idlib. Image Credit: AFP

M4 and M5 Highways

Putin has articulated a desire for the Syrian Army to regain the M4 and M5 highways, which he claims were part of Sochi 2018. This will restore the Syrian army to the Aleppo-Damascus Highway and to the Aleppo-Latakia Highway. Although government troops took one highway last week, there are pockets all around it still held by the Turkish-backed opposition, mainly between Saraqeb and Jisr Al Shughour. They are capable of obstructing travel on that highway, making it very unsafe and effectively useless for trade, civilian travel, and for military use by the Russian and Syrian armies.

Scraping Sochi

The Turkish President is suggesting scrapping of the Sochi Agreement and reaching a new deal with Putin, based on battlefield developments. Putin has not rejected the idea but he is saying that any new deal has be temporary and not permanent, adding that it must run through the Syrian-Turkish Adana Agreement of 1998. Putin has been pushing hard for its revival since February 2019, and all he has gotten from Erdogan is a promise to engage, with no follow-up from the Turkish side. If reactivated, the Adana Agreement would restore diplomatic relations between Syria and Turkey, giving the Syrians full control of their borders, and guarantees to the Turks that they can enter Syrian territory (up to a distance of no more than 5km) in pursuit of Kurdish separatists hiding in Syria.

“The Syrian government wants to regain control over the whole of Syria” said Nikolaos van Dam, a Dutch scholar, former ambassador Ankara, and special envoy for Syria. “This seems inevitable” he told Gulf News, adding: “Turkey cannot stay in Syria forever, just like Turkey would not accept any foreign troops on its own territory.”