Putin’s difficult choice between Ankara and Assad

Putin’s difficult choice between Ankara and Assad

Pro-regime armed groups in Syria last week evacuated from two villages, Kafraya and Fuaa, within the framework of an agreement.

These villages were the two last places hosting pro-regime groups which were under siege for a long time by jihadist anti-regime groups. Some 7,000 people have been transferred to Aleppo and, in reverse, 1,500 jihadist militants were released by the Bashar al-Assad regime.

This means that as no Alawite and Shiite elements are left, the Idlib region has become a homogenized, jihadist area. The first move the local administration controlled by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, previously known as the al-Nusra Front, made in these two villages during the weekend was to announce that Islamic rules will be valid from now on.

The picture on the ground triggers debates that there are no longer any barriers left in front of the regime to undertake an overall campaign in Idlib.

An interesting statement came from the Russian ambassador in Damascus, who underlined that the situation in Idlib is very complicated, adding that “Idlib has the biggest presence of militants and terrorists.”

“The situation in Idlib could be solved within a framework similar to that used in the south. But this will not be easy and it will take time,” he said.

This complication must be coming from a deadlock: The opposition groups that were evacuated from the south have been transferred to the northern parts, including Idlib. If the solution in the south was found in the north, where will the groups located in the north, in Idlib, be sent to? Let’s suppose these groups stayed in Idlib forever, what kind of a status will they have in the future of Syria?

Can Assad attack Idlib? One of the critical topics of the meeting that took place between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on July 14 was this question.

In this meeting, Erdoğan asked Putin to check with Assad and discourage him from an attack on Idlib, which could trigger a huge migration wave toward Turkey.

Russia, Iran and Turkey last year designated Idlib as a de-escalation zone within the framework of the Astana process.

To that end Russia, Iran and Turkey have set up several military observation posts along the borderline that separates Idlib from regime-held territories.

It is obvious that Assad’s military assault into Idlib will lift the raison d’etre of the Astana agreement.

Putin at a crossroads

Putin has to decide between Assad, whom he saved from falling from a cliff last minute by running to his help just as he was about to lose the war against his opponents, and Turkey, with which it is in a close cooperation in the Astana process.

In this case, he won’t stop Assad and will put relations with Turkey and long-term interests in Turkey in danger. It does not look realistic that the Russian leader would leave Assad’s hands free at the expense of jeopardizing ties with Turkey.

However, now having left behind a widespread international agreement that he is the winner in the war that is nearing an end, Assad will pressure Russia to exert its sovereign rights in Idlib as the sovereign legitimate regime of the country.

Russia has to somehow satisfy its ally Assad.

In the end, how Russia will find a way out between Turkey and the Assad regime is one of the most critical questions in the period ahead and one that will be closely monitored by Ankara.

This way, Idlib’s future hangs as a problematic issue over relations between Ankara and Moscow.

Sedat Ergin, Syrian Civil War, Russia, Vladimir Putin, Bashar al-Assad