Turkish armored personnel carriers stage in Hatay, Turkey, on February 9 while on their way toward Syria’s Idlib Province. (Cem Genco/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Analysts Say Turkish Threats Buying Time for Political Solution in Idlib

Already reeling under punishing refugee load, Ankara looks to Russia to green-light bigger say along border in face of powerful Syrian military thrust

Amid threats of Turkish military action against Russian-backed Syrian forces waging an offensive against rebels in Idlib Province, Ankara is pushing for a diplomatic solution with Moscow for more say in what happens close the Turkey-Syria border, analysts have told The Media Line.

The Turkish state news agency Anadolu reported that there were three-hour talks between Turkish and Russian officials on Saturday, “which stressed the need to ensure peace on the ground and discussed steps to boost the political process.” Both sides agreed to hold more talks in the coming weeks, the report added.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been carrying out an offensive in Idlib Province with military support from Russia since December. The province is the last major rebel stronghold in an almost nine-year civil war.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned last week that Assad’s forces would have to retreat from Idlib by the end of February or Ankara would retaliate.

Istanbul-based analyst Simon Waldman, a visiting fellow in Middle Eastern studies at King’s College London, said the deadline was meant to give Turkey time to negotiate with Russia.

“[Turkey] knows it needs to go to Moscow,” he told The Media Line.

Waldman argues that Assad’s takeover of Idlib is inevitable and that Turkey’s aim in holding talks would be Russian recognition of a role for Ankara in what happens near its border.

“The most important thing is the acknowledgement. In reality, that’s the most Turkey can get,” he said.

Alan Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who previously dealt with Turkish affairs at the US State Department, says Erdogan is unlikely to achieve a permanent ceasefire.

“He may get a commitment from Russia along these lines, but it’s doubtful Moscow would, or could, enforce more than a slight pullback and a temporary pause in the hostilities,” Makovsky wrote in an email to The Media Line.

“Putin may let Erdogan down gently, but ultimately, Russia has the leverage and Turkey’s days in Idlib are numbered,” he added.

In terms of Turkey carrying out armed action, Makovsky says that Erdogan will have to take into account the capabilities of his military, which is already deployed in other parts of Syria, as well as Russia’s willingness to accept attacks against Syrian targets.

“It’s difficult to know if Erdogan is bluffing or if he would really carry out his threat, because he’s done both so often. Most likely, it’s a bluff,” Makovsky said.

Ankara wants to stop hundreds of thousands of displaced persons from entering Turkey, which is already host to an estimated 3.6 million refugees from Syria’s civil war. The United Nations says 600,000 people have been displaced since the start of the Idlib offensive.

“The last thing Turkey wants is to have [further] Syrian refugees at its borders,” Waldman said. “It’s explosive political capital that the Turkish opposition would no doubt use.”

Resentment against the millions of Syrians already in Turkey has been partly blamed for electoral losses by Erdogan’s party in June, which saw both Ankara, the capital, and Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, fall into the hands of the opposition. These losses were followed by a splintering in his party, with high-profile defections.

US Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), a strong supporter of President Donald Trump, has expressed support for Turkey’s actions in Idlib.

“Appreciate Turkey pushing back against Assad & Russia when it comes to stopping the slaughter in Idlib. Strongly urge President Trump to rally the international community against Assad & Russia’s attacks and let them know all options are on the table,” Graham tweeted on February 5.

The Trump Administration stated last week that the Idlib offensive had to end, and Russia’s policies had to change.

Rena Netjes, an Istanbul-based analyst who carried out on-the-ground research in northern Syria last fall, says that while Washington has been more vocal than others, some of Turkey’s other Western allies could be more active in finding a solution for Idlib.

“I think the European Union is underestimating that it’s only Turkey that could try to stop… this disaster [from] becoming more of a disaster,” she told The Media Line.

Erdogan has warned that without EU support, he might allow refugees in Turkey to head for Europe, where several countries have already experienced a major anti-migrant backlash.

Makovsky believes the lack of international attention means Turkey should consider a new reality.

Ankara, he wrote, “needs to prepare for the not-too-distant day when its military presence will end or, at most, be restricted to its immediate border area.”

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