Turkey, Russia in intense negotiation over Syria
It goes without saying that the Syrian province of Idlib has once again become the focal point of all Syria-related international issues after the Syrian regime — backed by the Russian army — intensified its attacks against the rebel-held enclave.
Despite an ongoing memorandum of understanding between Turkey and Russia over a demilitarized zone in the province, the attacks by the Syrian army were launched in late April and have been observed to be stepped up in the following weeks.
Hundreds of civilians were killed in the operations, while around 200,000 people had to leave their homes since then, launching a new humanitarian crisis in a highly populated region where civilians and heavily armed jihadist terrorists live together.
Idlib is the last stronghold of both jihadist terrorists and moderate rebel groups, and became the target of the rule of Bashar al-Assad who wants to consolidate his control in western Syria. He wants to seize control of this strategic area that links Aleppo to Latakia through motorways. Russian leaders have many times recalled that a deal with Turkey on Idlib was a temporary one and the ultimate objective was to clear the area of terrorists.
With concerns that a major military campaign on Idlib would create a new crisis and refugee influx towards its borders, Turkey was quite active in recent weeks to avoid an operation. Its diplomatic correspondence included permanent members of the U.N. Security Council but mainly Russia, as its main partner in coordinating the actions in the Syrian theater.
A phone conversation between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and President Vladimir Putin were followed by a series of meetings between senior diplomatic, military and intelligence officials from both sides. The main avenue of negotiations, however, has been composed of two sides’ defense ministers, Hulusi Akar and Sergei Shoygu.
Turkey sees perfectly that the status quo in Idlib will not be a permanent one and that a military campaign by the Syrian army will be inevitable at one point. Delaying a massive operation so that all security and humanitarian preparations could be accomplished seems to be one of Turkey’s short-term objectives.
On the other hand, it also wants to include the situation in Tel Rifat in all the negotiations with Russians. As this column suggested on May 4, Turkey does not hide its disturbance with the Russian failure of delivering its promises on the continued presence of YPG troops in this province adjacent to Idlib and Afrin.
“Russia has promised us the removal of the YPG from Tel Rifat, but they have unfortunately not delivered it so far,” Akar had told the NTV news channel early May. That annoyance was a result of scores of attacks by the YPG from Tel Rifat against Turkish positions that killed one senior official and two privates.
According to unconfirmed reports, the negotiations between Akar and Shoygu include a speedy withdrawal of the YPG from Tel Rifat in return for Turkey’s green light to a military campaign on Idlib.
However, it does not necessarily mean that Turkey’s consent will cover all sorts of massacres and humanitarian crisis at the hands of the Syrian army. Talks between Turkey and Russia still focus on ways to
promote a diplomatic solution to both situations, in Idlib and Tel Rifat.