The situation in Idlib has long been shaped by the balance of talks between Russia and Turkey, and to a lesser extent Iran.
The bifurcation point was the Sochi Agreement of 2018, when Russia and Iran recognized Turkey’s right to control the situation in Idlib until the end of the war, up to the formation of the Constitutional Committee and presidential elections, while Ankara agreed to accept Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if he wins the elections.
Turkey had to do three things for that to happen: separate the actual terrorists from the “moderate opposition” and remove all heavy weapons from the area, unblock the Hama-Aleppo and Latakia-Aleppo routes (while the surrounding area remained in control of militants) and ensure that the de-escalation zone is actually effective, in conjunction with the Russian military.
Turkey didn’t carry out any of its obligations, irrespective if it could or it couldn’t.
As the Syrian Arab Army cleared other territories of Syria, the situation in Idlib did not fundamentally change.
A year after Sochi, part of the rural Idlib was taken from the militants. Erdogan did not understand which way the wind was blowing, he had a tactic and he adhered to it.
The Syrian government constantly demanded that Russia give the go-ahead for the offensive, and in the end, it got it, and the operation in Idlib began.
A situation arose, in which Turkey could come to the negotiation table for a post-war Syria without Idlib. This, in the long run would weaken the negotiating position of Turkey and its ability to influence the formation of post-war Syria.
Ankara began issuing complaints to Moscow and point out that the Syrian Arab Army is surrounding its observation posts and violates the Sochi agreement.
Moscow pointed out that Turkey did nothing for 1.5 years to fulfill the main points of the Sochi agreement, and thus, Assad’s government is in his own right.
And while Erdogan was stirring up drama and spreading propaganda in media, the Syrian government, with the support of Russia and Iran, took part of the negotiation asset from Erdogan, thereby changing the potential balance of negotiations on post-war Syria.
Because, it is in the Syrian government’s interest to have as little possible territory outside of its control when the war ends, since that would mean making as few concessions as possible.
By February, Turkey’s strategic loss was obvious, the front of the militants fell apart, dozens of cities began to be liberated, and due to the position of Russia and Iran, any logical moves within the framework of the Turkish Idlib strategy ended.
If Turkey continued to operate as it did before, the Syrian Arab Army would simply surround all Turkish observation posts and within a few months would go to the border with Turkey along the entire border of the Idlib province.
Therefore, tactics and an attempt to stir up the water through threats, supplying ATGMs and MANPADS to militants, attempts to put pressure on the Kremlin and flirting with the United States with the accompanying rhetoric in the media were employed.
Turkey signals that it is not happy with how the situation in Idlib is developing and is trying to force Russia to change course from pursuing a strategic plan to clean up Idlib and make it respond to Turkish threats and blackmail.
At the current stage, Russia has ignored the Turkish threats, saying that Turkey itself is to blame for what is happening, and that the Syrian government has the right to continue the offensive, essentially adhering to the line of behavior that ensured the latest operational and strategic successes.
Thus, the ball was thrown back to Erdogan. Since Turkey’s Idlib policy has reached an impasse at a strategic level, Erdogan raises rhetoric and slowly raises the bets by attacking the Syrian Arab Army.
So far, that’s led to the deaths of Turkish soldiers and absolutely no success whatsoever, it’s also failed to lead to any change in Russian attitude.
Hence the “strange” position of Ankara – it has no problems with Russia and it does not want to spoil relations with Russia, it only has problems with the Syrian government.
But it is no secret that Russia and Iran are behind Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and they will not stop supporting him, since he is cementing the positions of Russia and Iran in Syria.
Turkey is signaling that it wants to come to an agreement with Russia, but at this stage it is not happy with the proposal of Moscow, which reasonably believes that Erdogan is acting from a position of weakness, so there is no point in drastically changing the strategy or giving Erdogan more than he has leverage for.
In fact, Erdogan was left face to face with serious problems, where on the one hand there is a risk of a clash with Russia and Iran, as well as spoiled relations with the United States, Israel and Germany, and on the other hand – a declining rating within Turkey, increased opposition and the threat of losing face in Syria.
Moreover, Turkey is now conducting essentially 4 separate military campaigns – in Libya, in Idlib, in Syia and in Iraq. In general, this is a classic example of military-political adventurism.
Erdogan has made increased commitments and is faced with the fact that it is difficult for him to fight off Bashar al-Assad’s claims supported by Russia, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s pressure on Government of National Accord in Libya, sanctions pressure and a policy of threats from the United States.
Therefore, currently the situation is such that Turkey’s direct military threats are met with counterthreats, and in the case of Syria, the Turkish military is also being subject to attacks.
Therefore, Erdogan follows a predetermined trajectory, alternating threats and provocations with attempts to force Moscow to make concessions.
The issue is that, Moscow isn’t negotiation from a place of weakness, and Erdogan keeps driving himself into a corner, which would ultimately lead to a choice of either war or shame in Syria.
Moreover, the potential for escalation may be aggravated by the possibility of intervention by other countries that are objectively interested in destroying the situational Russian-Turkish-Iranian partnership in Syria.
First of all, are the USA and Israel. And in this case, the very “negative scenarios” may arise when the game of rhetoric and threats comes to an end due to an escalation.
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