President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described last week's regime attack in Idlib that claimed eight Turkish lives, as a "turning point" in the Syrian civil war. In addition to giving Bashar Assad time to retreat beyond the Turkish military observation posts by the end of the month, Erdoğan pledged that Turkey would push the regime forces away on its own if necessary.
Russia and the Bashar Assad regime want to seize control of the M4 and M5 highways as soon as possible – a sign that they have no intention of stopping. Going forward, they hope to seize new opportunities to take all of Idlib and push refugees and terrorist groups toward the Turkish border. This reality compels Ankara to take extra precautions.
In other words, if the de-escalation zone in Idlib stands to be undone, Turkey has to implement its own plan on the ground. An area, which can serve as a safe haven for refugees for the foreseeable future, must be taken by force. A military strategy must be put in place now to avoid costly delays in its implementation. Once the fate of Idlib is decided, the equilibrium between Russia, the U.S., Turkey and Iran will reach the home stretch.
Distinguishing Moscow from the regime
The most recent developments in Idlib suggest that the month of February will be unseasonably hot and tense. Turkey expects a military delegation from Moscow but has no intention of engaging in a confrontation with the Russians. They are making a careful distinction between the regime and Russia. Turkey maintains that the regime forces cannot hide behind Moscow anymore. This is a new situation that needs to be managed. How Moscow will respond to Ankara's determination is of utmost importance. Observers who expect a new escalation akin to the 2015 crisis are dead wrong. The Idlib file is the most challenging item on the agenda. Luckily, Turks and Russians know how to keep tensions under control. Just as Russia's relationship with Israel is unaffected by Israeli airstrikes in Syria, so too should Moscow and Ankara work together regardless of tensions between Turkey and the Assad regime.
The fate of 'strategic' ties
The fact that Russia and Turkey need each other is quite obvious. Indeed, President Erdoğan has been talking about "strategic" ties between the two countries. This description goes beyond mutual dependence when it comes to nuclear power, the S-400 air defense system, tourism and trade. At the same time, it highlights the possibility of cooperation in the new geopolitical environment between Iran and Libya. Let us remember that Turkey's relationship with the U.S. taught us that "strategic ties" do not necessarily mean a Catholic marriage. Washington's disregard for threats like the PKK or FETÖ undermined the Turkey-U.S. strategic partnership. As such, for the sake of Turkey's strategic "ties" with Russia, Moscow must appreciate what the refugee threat means to Turkey. The civilian population of Idlib consists of Syrians who have fled Assad's oppression and massacres – a last vestige of hope. The regime doesn't want those people and Idlib's population does not trust Bashar Assad. For them, the only remaining safe haven is in Turkey or the proposed safe zones in northern Syria.
No sympathy for asymmetrical relationships
Turkey has no appetite for asymmetrical relationships, unilateral actions or impositions – no matter from whom. Mutual dependence may be a norm, but one-sided dependence or asymmetry cannot last. We need to set aside diverging interests and create a hierarchy of priorities. Moscow cannot move forward in Syria without taking into consideration Ankara's vital interests. In doing so, Russia would risk inviting other stakeholders to play an active role in Idlib and elsewhere. Initial reactions from the U.S. and the EU were quite positive. Yet they represent an attempt by stakeholders, who stand to suffer the consequences of Idlib's potential fall, out of self-interest. It remains unclear how those statements will impact developments on the ground. The month of February will be crucial in that regard.