On December 23, a Turkish delegation visited Moscow for talks on the situation in Syria and Libya. The visit took palce as the Syrian Army was advancing on positions of militant groups, including Turkish-backed ones, in Syria’s Greater Idlib, and Turkey was increasing its military support to the pro-Turkish Government of National Accord in Libya.
The formal pretext for a visit was recent setbacks of pro-Turkish militants in Syria. Since the start of the army advance on December 19, al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (that have contacts with Turkish intelligence) and the National Front for Liberation (funded and created by Turkey) had lost up to 30 villages and towns and became on the edge of surrendering of Maarat al-Numan, the key urban center in Greater Idlib.
On December 22, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed that his country cannot handle a new wave of refugees fleeing the fighting in Syria’s Idlib. (Unfortunately, the Turkish president did not explain how his country was handling the Idlib terrorist hub just near its border)
“Turkey cannot handle a new refugee wave from Syria,” Erdogan said claiming that over 80,000 people from Idlib had fled to areas near the Turkish border.
Erdogan also sent a warning to the European Union claiming that if the flow increased, “Turkey will not carry this migration burden alone”. He added that the “negative effects” will be “felt by all European countries, especially Greece”. He compared this with the experience and scenes before the Turkey-European Union migration deal signed in 2016. Earlier, the Turkish presient claimed that Anakra received not all of 6.6 billion EUR promised to it in exchange for stronger controls on refugees leaving its territory for Europe. Ankara claims Turkey is home to around five million refugees, among which 3.7 million are Syrians.
So, Turkey used the Idlib advance in order to intensify talks with Russia on the situations in Syria and Libya, and to pressure the European Union for its own favour. Turkey did not provide extensive details on results of its December 23 talks with the Russian side. Formal statements by the sides indicate that they have reached a kind of understanding and declared their commitment to the further cooperation. On the same day, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held a phone converstation discussing recent developments in Syria and Libya.
The Russian Foreign Ministry’s “Press release on Russia-Turkey expert-level consultations on Libya“:
“On December 23, the Foreign Ministry hosted Russia-Turkey expert-level consultations on Libya. The Russian interdepartmental delegation was headed by Deputy Foreign Minister and Special Presidential Representative for the Middle East and Africa Mikhail Bogdanov; the Turkish delegation was led by Deputy Foreign Minister of the Republic of Turkey Sedat Onal.
After an exchange of views, the sides at the meeting agreed to continue contacts on the Libyan agenda, including with regard to a possibility of providing support to a speedy settlement of the crisis in the country.”
Additionally, it should be noted that Turkish top officials demonstrated a surprising moderation and made almost now harsh or loud statements regarding the Syrian Army operation in Idlib. During all the previous operations by the Damascus government and its allies, Turkish top officials made multiple statements and comments blaiming and shaming the “regime”, Iran and Russia for supposed civilian casualties and violations of the agreements. Turkish media outlets also limited their hate-speech and accusations towards the “Assad regime”. So, their current coverage of and accusations against actions the Syrian Army remained on the level observed before December 19. Even the Turkish observation post in Surman, which was surrounded by Syrian Army troops, is out of the Turkish mainstream agenda. Furthermore, the Turkish military did not try to deploy more troops in Idlib in order to stop the Syrian Army advance.
At the same time, the situation in northeastern Syria, where Russia and Turkey reached a ‘safe zone’ agreement also remains stable with no major clashes or incidents being reported in the area. This demonstrates a tactical success in the Turkish-Russian efforts to settle the situation there, despite the existing contradictions.
Therefore, one can assume the format of the new Turkish-Russian deal on Syria and Lbya. Over the past years, Idlib militant groups (first of all Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and its allies) have been resisting Turkish attempts to impose a full control of them. The militants’ leadership wanted to keep at least a semi-independence in order to gain more funds from various sources and secure their future if Ankara decides to abandon them. Nonetheless, the strengthening Turkish-Russian cooperation in the region revealed several gaps in this approach. The Turkish leadership has apparently decided to sell its junior partners in Idlib in order to achieve its strategic goals.
By indirectly allowing the Syrian Army, Turkey will improve its relations with Russia even further and open a corridor for a possible political solution of the conflict in the existing formats involving Ankara, Moscow, Tehran and Damascus. This solution was not possible while the terrorists were the main power in the “opposition-held part” of Idlib.
As to Libya, Ankara and Moscow apaprently agreed to “continue contacts on the Libyan agenda, including with regard to a possibility of providing support to a speedy settlement of the crisis in the country”. In other words, the sides established a de-escalation channel in Libya. In this conflict, Turkey supports the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA) that just signed with Ankara a controlversial deal on the shared maritime zone and a military cooperation agreement. The GNA’s main rival is the Libyan National Army (LNA) that controls most of the country. The LNA receives support from Egypt, the UAE and Russia. For example, President Erdogan recently mentioned “Russian mecrenaries” that support the LNA operation to capture Tripoli. Turkey sees its influence in Libya and the existance of the maritime zone memorandum with the GNA as vital factors to secure its interests in Eastern Mediterranean. The possible conflict with Russia over the situation in Libya does not contribute to this goals. So, Ankara likely opted to sell its proxies in Syria’s Idlib for Russia’s restraint towards Turkish actions in Libya.
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