Erdogan Takes Case to Putin With Turkey Cornered Again in Syria

(Bloomberg) -- Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking a reprieve from Vladimir Putin as Russian-backed Syrian forces close in on the country’s last major rebel bastion.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s army, with Russian air support, broke a cease-fire deal in the northwestern province of Idlib on Aug. 5, ordering an attack on Turkey-backed rebels and onetime al-Qaeda affiliates that control the area. The showdown is accelerating an exodus toward Turkey, which already shelters the largest number of Syrian refugees in the world.

Erdogan Takes Case to Putin With Turkey Cornered Again in Syria

Erdogan hopes to find common ground with Putin at a meeting near Moscow on Tuesday, before hosting Russian and Iranian leaders in Ankara on Sept. 16 to discuss ways to hold back the Syrian army. Erdogan has called the recent developments a “very serious security threat” to Turkey.

Putin and Erdogan will try to keep the crisis in Idlib from blowing up because they have many joint interests including arms sales, said Alexei Malashenko, senior analyst at the Berlin-based Dialogue of Civilizations research group co-founded by an ally of the Russian president.

“They’ll probably be able to avoid a nightmare,” he said by phone. “But this is a long-term problem that won’t go away.”

Competing Goals

Tough bargaining lies ahead with Russia, which says preserving the cease-fire in Idlib depends on the elimination of thousands of militants. Turkey has so far refrained from using force against the jihadists despite repeated calls from Moscow, relying on the presence of Turkish troops in Idlib as a deterrent against a large-scale attack on the Sunni Muslim-majority province.

Still, Turkey’s vulnerability was on full display when a recent air strike hit and halted its army convoy, virtually leaving a Turkish outpost cut off behind advancing Syrian forces.

As the Idlib offensive picked up, Turkey and the U.S. opened talks to carve out a narrow security zone in Syria’s northeast to push Kurdish YPG forces away from the Turkish border. Such a buffer is an irritant for Russia because it undercuts Assad’s control over Syrian territory.

‘Mounting Pressure’

Erdogan’s government opposes the YPG -- which took control of swaths of northern Syria as security collapsed during the civil war -- because of its links to a Kurdish separatist movement, the PKK, which Turkey has been fighting for over three decades.

For Assad, the immediate goal is to regain control over a highway that runs to Aleppo, once Syria’s commercial hub, according to Nihat Ali Ozcan, a strategist at the Economic Policy Research Foundation of Turkey. “If he can succeed, that will further press the jihadists, rebels and refugees against Turkey,” he said.

While Turkey and Russia back opposing sides in the war, they have cooperated in recent years.

Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said Russia considers the situation in Idlib to be Turkey’s “area of responsibility.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters Monday that Syrian army operations there don’t violate any agreements with Turkey.

Syrian Deal

Idlib was declared a de-escalation zone under a 2017 agreement between Russia, Turkey and Iran, which established military posts in the province to monitor any flare-ups. Turkey alone has 12 such outposts along the perimeters of Idlib.

“The regime is continuing its operations despite all our warnings to Russian officials at every level,” Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said Saturday. “No one should doubt that we will use our legitimate right to self-defense if our observation points or our presence there come under attack.”

More than half a million civilians have been huddling on the border with Turkey, which is already at tipping point with more than 3.6 million Syrian refugees. The frontier is now sealed with cement walls.

Despite the tensions, “there is no serious threat to economic cooperation between Turkey and Russia,” said Mesut Hakki Casin, a law professor at Istanbul’s Yeditepe University and member of the security and foreign policy board that advises Erdogan.

“It isn’t only Turkey’s responsibility to capture and bring terrorists to justice -- it is the responsibility of all three countries,” he said, referring to Russia and Iran.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.