The past few weeks witnessed the struggle of Syrians to survive either as refugees who fled from the regime and Russia's attacks in the northwestern province of Idlib or as innocent civilians who are trapped in the province, praying for tensions to ease. Already labeled one of the peak moments of the nine-year-long Syrian war for causing one of the worst humanitarian catastrophes that the world has ever seen, Idlib is now at the center of all discussions regarding Syria, as a key point that will potentially determine the future of the whole country.
Yet, in the very eye of the storm, there is Turkey and Russia, two of the major regional actors, both supporting confronting sides in the war while trying to keep their bilateral ties undamaged no matter what. However, according to the experts, the recent developments, especially the regime's targeting of Turkish soldiers, crossed a line of balance between the two and led to a scenario in which Russia's ambitions in the region caused the country to overlook Turkey's concerns and potentially harm the countries' well-rounded ties.
According to Eşref Yalınkılıçlı, a Eurasian expert based in Moscow, Idlib will be the litmus paper for Turkish-Russian relations.
"If they somehow manage to overcome this process, things can be better than ever for bilateral ties. However, if they fail in overcoming the problems, then we may return to the dark period once again," Yalınkılıçlı said.
Referring to 2015, when Turkey mistakenly took down a Russian jet – an incident that harmed ties and yet turned out to be the plot of the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ) – Yalınkılıçlı expressed that he does not believe that the situation will end that badly when it comes to the Idlib crisis.
"However, we can say that Turkish-Russian ties are not going through a good period by any means," he underlined.
Bashar Assad's forces have pressed ahead with an offensive in the region to recapture the last opposition stronghold bastion since December, killing more than 380 civilians, according to the monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The killing of 13 Turkish military personnel in Idlib in regime shelling has fueled tensions between Ankara and Damascus while raising stakes with Russia, a key ally of Assad.
Turkey has since retaliated for both attacks, hitting scores of targets and neutralizing over 200 Assad regime troops. Turkish troops are in Idlib, nominally a cease-fire zone, under a deal between Turkey and Russia as part of an anti-terror and peace mission. In September 2018, Turkey and Russia agreed to turn Idlib into a de-escalation zone in which acts of aggression are expressly prohibited. But more than 1,800 civilians have been killed in attacks by the regime and Russian forces since, flouting a 2018 cease-fire and a new one that began on Jan. 12.
Russia takes a huge risk in Syria
In the opinion of Salih Yılmaz, a professor at Yıldırım Beyazıt University and the head of the Ankara's Russia Studies Institute, Russia has miscalculated the consequences of its actions in Syria by taking a huge gamble against Turkey.
"Although regime attacks killed many Turkish soldiers, Russia was assuming that Turkey would not take any military action directly targeting Bashar Assad's forces. The harsh remarks of the Turkish authorities are seen as mere moves directed at domestic politics. However, the latest remarks of Erdoğan, saying that the regime has the chance to retreat from the area until the end of February, finally enabled Russia to realize that Turkey is serious on the issue," Yılmaz stated.
President Erdoğan on Wednesday accused Russia of supporting "massacres" in Idlib and threatened to strike regime forces anywhere in Syria if the slightest harm is done to Turkish troops.
Erdoğan has now given Damascus until the end of the month to push back its forces outside the military locations.
Turkey has also sent reinforcements including troops and artillery to beef up its observation posts in recent weeks following the series of exchanges with the Syrian regime army.
In return, Moscow accused Ankara of failing to honor the 2018 deal, with Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov saying the Turkish side "had taken upon itself an obligation to neutralize terrorist groups" in Idlib.
Under the bilateral agreement, radical groups were required to withdraw from a demilitarized zone in the Idlib region.
Pointing at the rapprochement between Turkey and the U.S. against the regime and, of course, Russia's actions in Syria, Yılmaz expressed that in the end, Moscow would be the one who suffers the most from these developments.
"The U.S. was already expecting Turkish-Russian ties to be damaged soon when withdrawing from northern Syria," he said. "Now," he added, "we see that the U.S. has been prepared for this for a while and provides the support for Turkey that was missing back in 2015 when there was the plane crisis with Russia. As a result of Russia's risk, Turkey's relations with both the U.S. and NATO have been improved."
As Turkey and Russia traded accusations over the escalation in Idlib, U.S. special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey voiced Washington's support for Ankara's "legitimate" interests in Syria and particularly in Idlib.
"Our job is to convince (Russia, Iran and the Assad regime) that they are not going to have a military victory," Jeffrey said, in comments shared on the embassy's official Twitter account, a day after he met with Turkish officials in Ankara.
"The United States totally agrees with Turkey on the legal presence and justification for Turkey defending its existential interests against refugee flow and dealing with terror and finding a solution to the terrible Syrian conflict with the war criminal regime of President Assad," he said.
Turkey, balancing power between Russia, US
For Yalınkılıçlı, there is a sensitive balance between Turkey, Russia and the U.S.
"In reality," Yalınkılıçlı said, "without their proxies, both the U.S. and Russia are nothing in Syria since they do not have any remarkable, actual presence in the field. Turkey is the one that keeps the balance between these two countries."
When it comes to Russia's aims in the region, Yalçınkılıçlı said that although there are no official remarks on the issue, it can be stated that the country's main desire is to hand Idlib over to the Syrian regime and move toward the political process. "And," he said, "when it comes to Russia's own interests in the region, we can say that they handle the situation pretty well," despite harming ties with Turkey.
Yılmaz, on the other hand, thinks that Russia's motivations are deeper than what is apparent on the surface.
"Russia claims to want terrorist elements to be cleared from Idlib. However, when we look at the recent statements, we see that they state their operation has been completed since the M5 highway was finally under the control of the regime forces. This is paradoxical. Does controlling M5 highway mean that terrorism has been eliminated from the region?" Yılmaz asked. "No," he answered immediately.
In Yılmaz's opinion, one should look deeper into why Russia wants to control this highway in the first place.
"Currently," he said, "the regime is lacking natural gas and oil. Normally, Russia was providing these resources to the regime but since it was costing a lot, it no longer wants to be the main provider and looks for other options to fulfill the regime's needs. Iran was also one of the providers; however, the U.S. embargo on the country made the energy transfer quite difficult. (Libya's putschist Gen.) Haftar was another provider. Yet, since there is a truce in Libya, his aid to the regime also is being disabled by the international community."
Now, with all the other options eliminated, Yılmaz said, the M5 highway is left as the most efficient option for the regime to reach the oil, the resources of which are currently controlled by the PKK/YPG.
Syrians know the Damascus-Aleppo highway, or the M5, simply as the "International Road." Cutting through all of Syria's major cities, the motorway is key to maintaining control of the country.
Assad gradually lost control of the motorway after 2012, when various opposition groups fighting to topple him began seizing parts of the country.
The 450-kilometer highway links the country's four largest cities and population centers: Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, cutting through the Idlib province.
Before the war, the M5 motorway served as an economic artery for Syria, mainly feeding the country's industrial hub of Aleppo.
Russia wants to weaken Turkey's hand
Yet, for Yılmaz, Russia's ambitions do not end with controlling the M5 highway.
"Russia also wants to force Turkey to sit at the table with the regime by escalating attacks to Idlib. Besides, Idlib's location will be critical in the future for its closeness to the Eastern Mediterranean. If Syria somehow fails to be a unified state, the opposition will be the one who controls Idlib and thus has the word over the developments in the Eastern Mediterranean," he said.
"Lastly," Yılmaz added, "by taking Turkey's attention to Idlib, Russia aims to thin down the country's hand in Libya since it would not be able to fight on two fronts at once."
In Libya, Turkey has been supporting the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) while Russia has been backing Haftar, creating yet another field of conflict for the two allies.
Still, despite all these disagreements and underlying motivations, experts underlined that the ties between the two countries are too well rounded and too crucial to fall apart.
"We need to acknowledge that Russia has quite crucial ties with Turkey, and if we claim that the two countries would experience a major blow to the relations due to Idlib, it would be a lie," Yılmaz said.
Yalınkılıçlı, on the other hand, stated that if the leadership power comes to the forefront, then there is hope for salvation in Idlib.
"Turkey's ties with Russia have never been strategic. Instead, there are pragmatic ties with Russia based on trade," he highlighted.
"However," he indicated, "if the leadership relations prevail, things may be over. I believe that the personal relationship between Erdoğan and Putin was very crucial in the improvement of the bilateral ties to this extent."
Underlining that Russia would not want to risk relations with Turkey flippantly, Yalınkılıçlı stated that still, they would also be against doing anything in Syria that would be contrary to their own interests.
Erdoğan and Putin are known for their close relationship that has become consolidated through frequent bilateral meetings as well as various economic cooperation instances over the years. For instance, Turkey has been purchasing S-400 missiles from Russia, while having multiple joint projects ongoing at the same time, including the TurkStream pipeline. The two countries have even tried to continue diplomatic talks for the sake of Syria by initiating both the Astana talks and the Sochi deal.
For Yalınkılıçlı, it is also not very realistic to expect empathy from Russia when it comes to Syria and its consequences for Turkey.
"Idlib is not a subject in Russia that is as highly discussed as it is in Turkey. To be honest, Russian people do not even know what the Russian military does in Syria. Half of them would not even know where Idlib is," he said.
"There are not any refugees or terrorists moving to Russia from Syria. So, it is not possible for them to empathize with Turkey's concerns. Such problems do not pose a real agenda for Russia," he added.
According to Yılmaz, although there is hope for better ties with Russia, Idlib has marked a breaking point in the bilateral relations of the two.
"We can say that the Sochi deal will no longer be in force. The Astana process has also been damaged due to the developments. Besides, the Adana Agreement will come to the forefront in the upcoming period as Turkey's basis for its movements in Syria," he said, adding that even if things would not work out and there would be a crisis, Russia would be the one who is affected the most.
"Turkey has an alternative; Russia does not," he said, referring to the U.S. "Turkey is Russia's opening door to the western world. I believe Russia will think through all of these when taking action," he added.