The attack of Syrian regime forces on a Turkish military convoy near Turkey's No. 9 observation point in northwestern Syria's Idlib last week has led to the emergence of disputes over Idlib between the two for the first time. Following these attacks, Idlib has taken its place on the top of the agenda in Ankara once again.
Yet, even though almost one year has passed since the Sochi agreement was signed on Sept. 17, 2018, the escalation has not reduced in the Idlib de-escalation zone, and the regime's attacks to gain land have intensified. Turkey was closely following the attacks with the intent to gain land until the regime directly targeted vehicles of the Turkish military for the first time. Widespread attacks, under the pretext of fighting the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) terrorist group in Idlib, have caused the displacement of around 1 million Syrians in less than one year.
Turkey expressed its concerns for the first time directly to Moscow, as it had previously voiced its warnings indirectly to the regime. While Turkey gave the regime the message "Do not play with fire," the country also underlined that Russia was repeatedly asked to abide by the requirements of the Sochi agreement and signaled that if these attacks go on, the future of the agreement will be in jeopardy.
Now, one question comes to the fore. Who is violating its commitment to the agreement reached in Sochi? As a reminder, according to the agreement, Russia was to take the necessary precautions for military operations and to avoid attacks in Idlib, and the existing status quo was to be preserved. The demilitarization areas were to be established with a width of 15-20 kilometers, and all radical terrorist groups and their heavy weapons were to be pushed out. Furthermore, Turkey's observation points were to be strengthened. However, now the opposite has occurred with the attack on the Turkish convoy. Thus, not only have there been several announcements from both the Foreign Ministry and Defense Ministry regarding Idlib, but one of the main headlines on the agenda at the council of ministers under the chairmanship of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was the rising tension in the northern Syrian province.
On the same day, Presidential Spoxperson İbrahim Kalın stated that Erdoğan will make a phone call to Russian leader Vladimir Putin in upcoming days. On the other hand, Turkey closely follows the humanitarian tragedy that is taking place in Idlib. Ankara estimates that a new refugee wave is inevitable considering that about 4 million Syrians live in the region and that the Bashar Assad regime attacks civilians daily. At this point, Turkey is considering the precautions needed in case refugees, in numbers ranging from 300,000 to 1 million, may turn up at the country's borders. While local Syrian political groups indicate that the Bashar Assad regime still wants to surround the area north of Hama province by trying to reach Khan Sheikhoun, they are calling for Turkey and the international community to take concrete action to ensure the security of civilians in Idlib and the Turkish Armed Forces' (TSK) base in Morek. Additionally, they demand the northwestern Bayırbucak and Aleppo regions be included among the safe zones under the control of Turkey for the definitive establishment of peace in northern Syria. The groups added that this is not only the wish of one group but that of all the people living in the mentioned regions. Meanwhile, it is no coincidence that the tension in the de-escalation zone has intensified since April instead of decreasing since there are comments indicating that the "peace corridor" agreement between the U.S. and Turkey is disconcerting Moscow. Especially following the coup attempt on July 15, 2016 and intensifying after the purchase of the S-400 missiles when all communication channels were opened, Ankara and Moscow should be able to comprehend each other's concerns about Idlib. Russia knows exactly why Turkey is objecting to a PKK terror corridor intended to be created in northern Syria. Again, Moscow has witnessed the risks and efforts Turkey has undertaken to create an atmosphere of security for Syrians that had to migrate and leave their country. In light of these facts, it is rational to anticipate that Russia will not aid breaches that would jeopardize Turkey's presence and security in Idlib. Concrete implementations in this regard will be seen after the phone call between the two heads of state in the coming days. At the face-to-face meeting on Sept. 16, during the trilateral meeting of Turkish, Russian and Iranian leaders in Ankara, it will become clear if the agreement will be maintained or not.