A Turkish military convoy traverses the Syrian town of Sarmada, in Idlib Province, on February 17. (Rami Al Sayed/AFP via Getty Images)

Turkey Continues Talks with Russia on Idlib Fighting

Ankara furthers military build-up in northwestern Syria amid hopes for cease-fire agreement

Talks between Ankara and Moscow continued for a second day on Tuesday over a Russia-backed offensive in Syria’s largest remaining rebel stronghold that threatens to push hundreds of thousands more refugees into Turkey.

The Turkish military has been sending troops and equipment into Idlib Province, which borders Turkey in northwestern Syria, in an attempt to hold off the onslaught and protect its observation posts in the region, some of which are now encircled by Syrian forces.

Simon Waldman, an Istanbul-based analyst and visiting fellow in Middle Eastern studies at King’s College London, said the talks in Moscow were more an attempt at crisis control and unlikely to lead to anything permanent.

“Turkey wants to lay down its red lines, but there’s only so much it can push,” Waldman told The Media Line.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to push back troops loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if they do not retreat by the end of February.

According to Turkey’s state news agency, the deputy foreign minister is leading Ankara’s efforts in negotiations with the Russian envoy for Syria at the discussions in Moscow, which began on Monday.

Waldman believes that Turkey’s military buildup in Idlib is meant to improve its ability to negotiate with Russia, saying that while there wight be some instances of fighting, there ultimately will be a diplomatic solution.

“We’re talking about an imperfect situation, quite frankly, because the Syrian regime doesn’t like the status quo,” he said.

Analysts agree that Russia and NATO-member Turkey do not want a direct confrontation, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressing on Monday that the two sides were in contact.

“Troops from Russia and Turkey on the ground in Syria, in Idlib, are in constant contact with each other, looking at changes in the conditions. They have a full understanding of each other,” Lavrov said, according to the Reuters news agency.

Relations between the two countries plunged in 2015 after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter that Ankara claimed had encroached Turkish airspace from Syria. Even at that time, however, the Russian foreign minister stated that Moscow did not want a war with Turkey.

Erdogan has been moving the country closer to Russia ever since even though historically, the two have been competitors in the region.

An arms deal between Moscow and Ankara has caused a major rift with the United States, which suspended Turkey’s involvement in the F-35 jet fighter program and is contemplating sanctions.

Analysts say Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to keep strong ties with Turkey as a way to gain influence within NATO and destabilize it, while Erdogan is hoping these relations will make Ankara more independent and less reliant on the West.

“In many respects, there’s a kind of marriage of convenience between Turkey and Russia,” Waldman said.

The United Nations says that over 875,000 Syrians have been displaced in Idlib Province since the government offensive began there in December.

Turkey is hoping to stop Syrians from entering the country, which hosts more refugees from the Syrian civil war – set to go into its tenth year next month – than any other nation. Turkish resentment toward refugees is being blamed in part for Erdogan’s domestic political struggles, highlighted by his party’s stunning loss in last year’s mayoral races in Istanbul and Ankara.

According to Kerim Has, a Moscow-based political analyst focusing on Russia and Turkey, “Erdogan… needs a war, in my opinion, to consolidate his power…. Turkey doesn’t need such a war, but Erdogan needs such a war.”

Has told The Media Line that a permanent solution was unlikely to come out of the discussions in Moscow considering that the officials at the meetings were not members at the highest levels of government.

“If they reach a temporary cease-fire agreement tomorrow, it won’t have a long-term effect,” Has said.

Ankara has carried out three incursions into Syria, including one in October last year to clear US-backed Kurdish fighters from the border area and set up a “safe zone” to send back Syrian refugees.

Has believes that Russia and Damascus are trying to isolate Turkey’s troops and allies in northwestern Syria from other parts of the country that Ankara controls. Yet he also feels that Russia does not want to push Turkey to the point where their bilateral ties are damaged, especially considering that Ankara could take in more weapons from Moscow in the spring.

“Everyone,” Has said, “is testing the limits.”

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