Idlib is still a Turkish- Russian problem
Turkey’s massive military response to the killing of its 34 troops in an aerial attack by the Syrian regime forces in Idlib was accompanied by two separate diplomatic moves.
Turkey has immediately called on NATO for consultations in line with Article 4 of the Washington Treaty to get the support of the allied countries. The Syrian forces’ operation into Idlib was also brought to the attention of the U.N. Security Council on Feb. 28 with strong messages by the Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for an immediate ceasefire.
Turkey’s efforts to garner the support of individual countries were carried out by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu who have spoken to mainly their Western counterparts. Within this framework, Erdoğan held phone conversations with United States President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and French President Emmanuel Macron, while Çavuşoğlu met Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in the Qatari capital Doha, on the sidelines of an international meeting.
The second move Turkey made right after the Syrian attack on the Turkish troops was opening the border gates to refugees willing to go to Europe. This prompted tens of thousands of refugees to move towards the Greek border, which has created a new humanitarian chaos. A tough response by the Greek law enforcement has claimed the lives of two refugees, with concerns that the standoff between Turkey and the rest of Europe can lead to further tragedies.
Turkey’s objective seems to turn the Idlib problem into a matter of the international community, particularly by dragging the European Union into the problem. It’s true that opening the gates has set off alarm bells in Greece, Bulgaria and in the entire continent, but it’s hard to suggest that this could bring about the desired steps from the EU.
On the contrary, it has ignited a strong reaction from many member countries. Although Ankara is very much right in its criticisms against the EU over its reluctance in sharing the refugee burden with Turkey, encouraging the refugees to attempt to cross the border will hardly yield desired diplomatic goals.
President Erdoğan had an in-person meeting with Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov in Ankara and a phone conversation with Merkel late Monday to discuss the growing refugee problem on the Turkish-Greek border.
Borisov’s attempt to hold a trilateral meeting has failed because Erdoğan refused to meet the Greek prime minister after two Syrian refugees were killed at the hands of Greek law enforcement. Eyes, therefore, will be on Merkel who has suggested the establishment of a secure zone in Idlib where the Syrians could be sheltered through financial support by the EU. The EU’s foreign ministers will hold meetings on March 5 and 6 in Croatia where they will discuss all the recent developments concerning Syria and whether they would agree on renewing the March 2016 migrant deal with Turkey in line with the new realities.
Despite the Turkish efforts to expand the scope of the Idlib-centered developments to a global scale, a resolution to the ongoing conflict in Idlib is still under the domain of Turkey and Russia. Both sides are navigating military strategies in Idlib to get an upper hand before the Erdoğan-Putin meeting in Moscow on Thursday.
Turkey has made clear that it won’t step back and can give hard times to the Syrian army through Operation Spring Shield, while the Russians have begun tightening the grip in the Idlib enclave after a few days of toleration for the heavy Turkish offensive. A Russian military patrol has begun controlling the strategic town of Saraqib on the M5 highway with signals that it won’t let the advance of Turkey-backed moderate groups.
There are expectations that Erdoğan and Putin would agree on a new – although temporary – deal for Sochi. A deal should compromise the scope and methodology of a potential ceasefire, the control of the M4 and M5 highways, the elimination of jihadist terror organizations, potential joint patrolling along these two highways and re-locating Turkey’s observation posts. It will be a difficult task but even a bad deal is much better than a no-deal.