Turkish-Russian ‘strategic partnership’ will be tested in Idlib

Turkish-Russian ‘strategic partnership’ will be tested in Idlib

Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu held his second meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the last two weeks. The minister also met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Aug. 24.

Defense Minister Hulusi Akar and National Intelligence Organization Director Hakan Fidan were also in Moscow on the same day, just a week after their first trip to the Russian capital.

All of this diplomatic traffic is about the impending Syrian military operation into the Idlib province of Syria where around three million are living. The Syrian army, backed by Russia, is aiming to eliminate the jihadist terrorists, which have been controlling the province since early 2017.

Turkey has 12 military outposts around Idlib, as part of a three-way agreement with Russia and Iran.

Turkey has three main concerns: First, a large-scale operation without distinguishing civilians from terrorists can create a huge catastrophe. Second, it can kick another influx from Syria towards Turkey, complicating the already difficult refugee problem in the country. The third is of course about the security of the Turkish troops in Syria. Any direct attack on Turkish troops would certainly trigger a new and very deep conflict between Turkey and Syria.

“Russia is our strategic partner,” Çavuşoğlu said during the press conference with Lavrov, implying it also wants Russia to act along this line. The Turkish minister’s characterization of ties with Russia can be right from Ankara’s perspective but when it comes to the situation in Syria, Russia’s strategic partner is no doubt Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia has secured key military bases in the country and important deals for future military cooperation with the al-Assad regime in a bid to turn this war-torn country into its regional base from where it can control a vast strategic area. Therefore, the elimination of terrorists in Syria will also provide security for its military facilities and bases in the country. Lavrov, in his press conference in Ankara in mid-August, made it clear it was Syria’s right to fight terrorists and so it was Russia’s right to support the Syrian government.

Another aspect about the Idlib operation is its timing. It comes after Putin’s meeting with United States President Donald Trump in Helsinki in mid-July, in which the two leaders have reportedly come to an agreement over the future of Syria. More importantly, the operation will likely begin as Turkey is in the middle of an immense tension with the U.S. over scores of different reasons. It should be well-noted: The only red line in Syria, for the U.S. and other prominent western countries, is the use of chemical weapons as they made it clear last week.

Turkey’s proposal to Russia on Idlib suggests a joint work by the military and intelligence to identify who are terrorists and who are not. Turkey openly says a blanket military operation into the province would create a human tragedy and would kill the Astana process.

The next few weeks will show whether Turkey and Russia are really strategic partners or whether their partnership was a temporary tactical one.

Serkan Demirtaş,