How will Turkey respond to Assad’s Idlib offensive?

How will Turkey respond to Assad’s Idlib offensive?

The latest in-person meeting between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Jan. 8 in Istanbul brought about calls for ceasefire both in Libya and Idlib province of Syria.

As a result, ceasefires were declared in both theaters as of Jan. 12, but they did not last long.

In Libya, General Khalifa Haftar delayed a deal for a permanent ceasefire that was brokered by Turkey and Russia on Jan. 13 in Moscow. The general situation in the field seems to be tranquil before the Berlin Summit this weekend although there are reports about new attacks by the Haftar forces near Tripoli.

It’s believed that the summit in Berlin that will bring two warring sides, Haftar and U.N.-backed Government National Accord (GNA) Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, as well as leaders of Turkey, Russia, France, Italy, Germany, etc. will mark an important turning point on the nearly decade-old turmoil in Libya.

The situation in Idlib, however, does not promise a peaceful conclusion. The Syrian army – backed by Russian air forces – has launched a fresh offensive on Jan. 15 and intensified it by the penetration of massive ground troops against the opposition groups. It triggered a new refugee influx towards the Turkish borders as the officials inform that the number of displaced people has already hit half a million.

At the point we have arrived, Turkey must review its position and dialogue with Russia on Idlib. Even this columnist does not remember how many unfulfilled ceasefires have been declared since the Syrian regime launched a military offensive in Idlib since May 2019, despite the September 2018 Sochi Agreement between Turkey and Russia.

The regime’s Idlib policy is well-known and supported by Russia. It wants to clear the province of the radical jihadist terrorists and take control of the entire region.

One should recall the recent developments concerning Syria to put things into a context.

Putin paid a snap visit to Damascus on Jan. 7 and welcomed the efforts of the Bashar al-Assad regime in terms of the re-installation of the order in the country. The visit was interpreted as direct support to Damascus’ efforts to eliminate all terrorists in the Idlib province. Putin, later at a press conference with Germany’s Angela Merkel, expressed his satisfaction over the gains of the Syrian regime in the field.

On Jan. 13, a surprise meeting took place between the heads of the intelligence services of Syria and Turkey under the Russian mediation in Moscow. It was the first time that Hakan Fidan, the head of the National Intelligence Organization (MİT) had a meeting with the head of the Syrian National Security Bureau, Lt. General Ali Mamlouk.

It was the first highest-level meeting between the two sides, and officials in Ankara hinted that the dialogue with Damascus will continue in the coming period. Russians have long been pressing on Turkey to engage in dialogue with Syria on security-related matters under the Adana Agreement of 1998.

The Syrian-Russian duo have an upper hand against Turkey when it comes to Idlib. They use the refugee influx as a trump card and push Turkey for dialogue with the Syrian regime with the ultimate objective of the Turkish withdrawal from both Idlib and other areas it controls on the border.

Erdoğan, responding to the questions on Jan. 17, stressed that Turkey’s concerns were not limited to the developments in Idlib as difficulties have been observed all along the Turkish-Syrian border.

He said he will once again discuss all these developments with Putin in Berlin on Sunday and repeated that Ankara might retaliate to keep the order in these regions.

Just a day before Syria broke the ceasefire, Erdoğan told his lawmakers in parliament, “It’s obligatory that the ceasefire should be implemented in a way to let the return of 400,000 people on our borders to their homes. It’s everybody’s responsibility to discourage the regime – which tries to hamper the political process - from using methods based on violence and bloodshed. If necessary, we are determined to prevent the regime from breaking the ceasefire.”

Plus, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar on Jan. 15 underlined that Turkey will not abandon its 12 observation posts in Idlib and won’t withdraw from the area as “this was non-negotiable.”

Although Erdoğan and Putin will once again discuss the state of affairs in Idlib, it’s perhaps time for Ankara to develop a new strategy to avoid a new refugee inflow and fresh security concerns on its border. A military response to the regime’s assaults will only escalate the violence and will further complicate the situation in the field. Russians, on the other hand, should see that cornering Turkey is not a solution.