Radical groups block Turkish-Russian patrol in Idlib
A deal brokered on March 5 between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin brought about two important results in terms of de-escalation in the Idlib province of Syria: The cessation of military activities by the Turkish and Syrian armies and the establishment of a security corridor along the M4 highway.
Through the agreement, in a bid to secure the traffic on this key highway that links Aleppo to Latakia, a joint patrolling mission by the Turkish and Russian armies has also been endorsed.
The ceasefire seems to hold in general terms, but the joint patrolling missions cannot be carried out properly due to the continued activities of the radical groups along the M4. The first and second missions were conducted on March 15 and March 23 respectively but both operations had to be cut short due to provocative moves by these groups.
Under normal conditions, the third mission had to take place last weekend. Ankara blames the bad weather conditions, but it seems it’s more than that. Citing security reasons, the Russian side is not very much willing to hold the joint mission with calls on the Turkish government to take measures against the disruptive activities of the radical groups.
At a press briefing on March 27, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova reiterated Moscow’s long-standing demands from Turkey.
“We hope that our Turkish partners will continue their efforts to separate moderate opposition from extremists and take measures to neutralize the latter,” Zakhraova said. She has also drawn attention to the fact that some of these radical groups are in an effort to rename and get organized under a new identity, urging, “There must be no illusions that we are talking about internationally acknowledged terrorists, regardless of whether they call themselves Al Qaeda, Jabhat al-Nusra or Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.”
In addition to the pressure from Russia, the Turkish military presence in Idlib has been kept busy with the increased activities of these radical groups. On March 19, two Turkish soldiers were killed in an attack near the town of Muhambal along the M4 highway. The Defense Ministry blamed “radical groups” for the attack but did not specify a specific organization.
The radical groups remaining near the highway will likely continue to interfere with the joint patrolling mission and it would constitute very good reasoning for the Russian and Syrian armies to break the ceasefire in the region.
A visit by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to Damascus on behalf of Putin where he held talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad should be cited as an important event for future coordination between Moscow and Damascus. They have discussed “ensuring a stable cessation of hostilities in the Idlib de-escalation zone, stabilizing the situation in other parts of Syria, as well as various aspects of military-technical cooperation in the joint fight against international terrorist groups,” according to Russian authorities.
At this point, Turkey has to manage two challenging complexities at once. It should find a way to tackle the radical terrorist organizations and to push Russians for the continued implementation of the March 5 agreement.
As Turkey is responsible for the northern bank of the M4 highway where plenty of different radical groups have long been sheltered, it will, sooner or later, have to take a decision on what kind of a measure it will be imposing against them.