Erdogan issues Idlib ultimatum as tensions with Russia mount

Damascus and its Russian backers appear determined to continue the offensive despite Turkish President’s threat.

ISTANBUL — Turkey is ready for a full-scale military confrontation against the Russia-backed Syrian army in Idlib province if Damascus does not withdraw its troops, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.

“We will not take even the smallest step back in Idlib,” Erdogan told his ruling Justice and Development party’s lawmakers in parliament.

Erdogan, speaking February 26, called on Turks to unite in the face of possible clashes after the death of 17 soldiers in Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria after nine years of war, in fighting since the start of the month. He did not mention his plan to convene a summit with the leaders of Germany, France and Russia, the main backer of Syria’s government, March 5 in Istanbul. It is unclear whether the meeting will take place.

Erdogan repeated his ultimatum for the troops of Syrian President Bashar Assad to pull back to positions behind Turkish military outposts in Idlib by February 29. At least four of the 12 Turkish positions in Idlib, which were built under an agreement between Ankara and Moscow, have been surrounded by Syrian troops since the start of a push by Damascus to wrest control of Idlib from rebel forces.

“The time we have given to those who besieged our observation towers is running out,” Erdogan said. “One way or another, we will liberate the outposts by the end of the month.”

Despite Erdogan’s warnings, the Syrian Army continued its advance in Idlib, a region dominated by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a breakaway faction of al-Qaeda. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said Assad’s troops, backed by Russian air strikes, had captured 132 villages in Idlib and neighbouring Hama province since the end of January. Syrian rebels supported by the Turkish military said they had seized the town of Nairab in Idlib.

More than 400 civilians have been killed in the offensive, the Observatory said, and nearly 1 million people have been displaced amid bitter cold.

Damascus and its Russian backers appear determined to continue the offensive.

In a statement on public television, the Syrian Army announced February 26 that it “regained control” of a dozen of areas in recent days, including Kafranbel in southern Idlib, among the first town to rebel against Damascus in 2011. The army vowed to “liberate the territories of the Syrian Arab Republic from terrorism and its supporters.”

Turkey, a country that hosts 3.6 million Syrians, has poured thousands of troops into Idlib since early February to stop the Syrian advance and prevent a new influx of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Idlib.

Erdogan said Turkey’s biggest military problem in Idlib was the lack of air cover, a reference to the fact that Russia controls the skies over the province. Erdogan said he hoped his country would find a “way out” but he gave no details.

Omer Ozkizilcik, an analyst at the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (Seta), a Turkish think-tank that often reflects government positions, called Erdogan’s address a “war speech.”

Ozkizilcik said on Twitter that Erdogan made similar speeches before previous Turkish military interventions in Syria. “Turkey is ready for confrontation,” he said, adding in a question directed at the Russian embassy in Ankara: “Are you? If not withdraw the #Assad regime and make a good deal.”

Erdogan’s bellicose speech came as one of his advisers expressed doubts about the future of Turkey’s cooperation with Russia in Syria.

Burhanettin Duran, a member of Erdogan’s foreign policy advisory council and Seta’s general coordinator, said Russia appeared to be no longer interested in working with Turkey in Idlib or other regions in northern Syria occupied by Turkey.

“Moscow’s escalation suggests that it does not want Turkey to play a role in Syria’s political transition,” Duran wrote in a column for the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper. “It seems that Russia wants a withdrawal of Turkish troops from the remaining safe zones that Ankara liberated from terrorist groups.”

In another sign of growing tensions between Turkey and Russia, Moscow accused Ankara of helping foreign fighters to get to Libya. Erdogan confirmed last week that pro-Turkish Syrian fighters were in Libya.

Huseyin Cicek, a political scientist and expert on religion and politics at the Department of Islamic-Theological Studies at Austria’s Vienna University, said it was in Turkey’s interest to prevent a crisis in its relations with Russia.

“Let’s not forget that it was mostly Russia that gave Turkey room to manoeuvre in Syria,” Cicek said via e-mail. “Turkey would do well not to torpedo or worsen its ties with Russia.”

Cicek added that one of the reasons for rising frictions between Ankara and Moscow was an attempt by Russia to reconcile Assad’s government with Kurds in north-eastern Syria, which is partially occupied by Turkish troops. Turkey regards the main Kurdish party in Syria as a terrorist organisation and threat to its national security.

“Moscow is trying to put an alliance together between Damascus and the Kurds to stabilise Syria,” Cicek said. “This development causes displeasure in Ankara.”

Thomas Seibert is an Arab Weekly contributor in Istanbul.

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