Turkey and Russia have genuinely cooperated in the difficult terrain of Idlib. It started with Turkey helping to facilitate the evacuation of some armed opposition factions from Aleppo to Idlib. It continued when the three guarantors of the Astana process — Russia, Turkey and Iran — decided to establish four de-escalation zones in Syria: Deraa, Eastern Ghouta, Homs and Idlib.
Turkey was only involved in the Idlib de-escalation zone because it was adjacent to its border with Syria. When Syrian government forces were about to launch a military operation against the armed opposition factions in the province, Turkey asked Russia to use its influence to postpone the operation, as it would push displaced civilians toward and likely across the nearby Turkish border.
Media reports say 150,000 civilians have already started to move toward the border. Turkey has reached the limits of its capacity to receive refugees because it already accommodates more than 3.6 million Syrians.
Another reason for Turkey’s initiative to postpone the military operation was that it thought it could persuade some moderate armed opposition factions to lay down their arms, thus avoid unnecessary bloodshed.
Turkey genuinely tried to fulfill these promises, but failed. Jabhat Al-Nusra — now renamed Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham — launched an assault against smaller opposition factions in the province, ousted them from the lands they controlled and occupied more than 80 percent of the province’s territory. Russia appreciated Turkey’s efforts but, after a while, started to grow weary. Russian officials, without directly criticizing Ankara, expressed their uneasiness at Turkey’s failure to fulfill its commitment.
The Syrian government, determined to extend its sovereignty to its entire pre-conflict territory, subsequently resumed its offensive in the rebel-held areas, with Russian air cover. On May 4, two Turkish soldiers were lightly wounded by a Syrian army shell near a Turkish observation post. It was unclear whether this was intentional or accidental.
Upon Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s telephone conversation with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, complaining about the Syrian government’s violation of the cease-fire, the latter agreed to set up a joint committee to discuss ways to end the hostilities in Idlib. However, it is unlikely that Russia will agree to a solution that would turn Idlib into a lasting safe haven for the armed opposition. Neither Russia nor the Syrian government would settle for a solution that would allow the situation in Idlib to fester.
Russia tries its best to manage Turkey’s sensitivity. As a goodwill gesture, it withdrew its soldiers from Tell Rifaat — a strategically important location that threatens Turkey’s military presence in Afrin. It is also important because there is an area held by Kurdish activists south of the city.
Turkish-Russian relations are also tumultuous because of the American pressure on Ankara to prevent the deployment of the Russian S-400 air defense system in Turkey. Ankara insists that the purchase of the system is a “done deal” and that the delivery of its components will start in July, if not sooner, but Washington is equally insistent that it should not be deployed.
The Pentagon says that the delivery to Turkey of new F-35 jet fighters would be suspended if the S-400 was deployed. A draft bill unveiled by the Senate Armed Services Committee last week made the same commitment. There is a major dilemma here because Turkey is one of the co-manufacturers of the aircraft. As many as 800 different components of the F-35 are manufactured in Turkey and, for some of these, Turkish companies are the sole supplier. The mother company, Lockheed Martin, has already started looking for alternative manufacturers to substitute Turkish companies if the supply comes to an end. The change of suppliers would be likely to delay delivery of the F-35s, potentially by up to two years.
Ankara seems determined not to step back from the deployment of the S-400, while Washington continues to believe that Turkey should do so. Russia enjoys watching this altercation between two NATO allies and is confident that, as the positions have become so sharpened, Turkey will go ahead with the deployment.
For Russia, one side of the exercise is the sale of the S-400 air defense system, and another side is the economic deal of $2.5 billion. But, more important than these two factors, is its success in shaking the solidarity between two NATO allies and between Turkey and the remainder of the alliance.
As a result of this complicated equation, the Idlib dilemma between Turkey and Russia becomes just one part of wider disagreement that transcends the local conflict. Turkey came to this point as a result of a choice it made without considering all the implications of a deal that looked, at the beginning, as a simple commercial transaction. But it looks like this controversy may cause a lot of other headaches for Turkey.