Russia’s Syria gamble under pressure as Turkey attacks in Idlib

Russia’s Syria gamble under pressure as Turkey attacks in Idlib

Henry Foy in Moscow, Laura Pitel in Istanbul and Chloe Cornish

Turkish attacks on Russian-backed forces in the Syrian province of Idlib are testing Moscow’s relationship with Ankara as all sides raise the stakes in the latest phase of Syria’s nine-year civil war.

Seeking to avenge the killing last week of 34 Turkish soldiers, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has bombarded Syrian regime targets in the province in the last three days, warning that the destruction of fighter jets and killing of more than 100 pro-regime combatants is “only the beginning.”

The heightened conflict has laid bare the risks inherent in the Kremlin’s gamble of allowing President Bashar al-Assad of Syria to fight Mr Erdogan for control of Idlib, Syria’s last rebel-held province, and left Mr Putin caught between the two leaders who have helped him gain greater influence in the Middle East.

The Turkish president’s threatened escalation of hostilities risks all-out war as he prepares to meet Vladimir Putin of Russia in Moscow on Thursday. The two leaders will seek a resolution to an almost year-long battle that is edging the countries closer to a direct military confrontation.

“Moscow is worried about the possibility of Syrian-Turkish clashes degenerating into a real war. Casualties on both sides bring that war closer,” said Dmitri Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center. “Russia will try to get some sort of a ceasefire to prevent being eventually dragged into war, but it will put pressure on Erdogan to yield on the ground.”

A 2018 deal between Mr Putin and Mr Erdogan to prevent a Syrian assault on Idlib, which borders Turkey, fell to pieces last year as both sides accused each other of breaching the terms.

In recent weeks fighting has intensified, with more than 50 Turkish military personnel killed in air strikes by the Russian-backed regime. 

Moscow says Syria is fighting terrorists supported by Ankara. Turkey has consistently sought to avoid blaming Moscow directly and instead turned its ire on Damascus. “We said that we would avenge the death of our martyrs,” said Mr Erdogan on Monday, even as he said he would like a ceasefire in Idlib. “By destroying the regime’s war planes and tanks, we are making it pay a very heavy price.”

Al Watan, a pro-government Syrian newspaper, wrote that with the start of the new offensive, Turkey had “declared war on Syria”.

Operation Spring Shield, Turkey’s latest campaign, is Ankara’s fourth military offensive in Syria in as many years. But it is the first to directly target the Assad regime, unleashing the power of the second-largest military in Nato on the depleted Syrian armed forces.

“It is quite logical that Russia would not be able to dodge negative consequences from [Mr] Erdogan for ever. In fact it is a great surprise that it lasted so long,” said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow-based defence think-tank. 

The Kremlin declined on Monday to comment on the fresh Turkish offensive but reiterated its support for the Syrian military's operations and endorsed a statement from the Russian defence ministry that Moscow “cannot guarantee the safety of Turkish aviation in the Syrian sky”. 

“Our stance is absolutely consistent and unwavering,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said. “We support Syria's territorial integrity and back up Syria’s intention to continue fighting terrorists and terrorist groups.”

The defence ministry statement was an “indirect” threat to Ankara, Mr Trenin said. “It’s not clear whether Russia would actually shoot down Turkish planes over Syria but testing that would be reckless. It doesn’t mean it won’t happen.”

In a sign that this threat may have worked, analysts said that the pace of Turkish drone attacks had slowed on Monday after a 72-hour blitz, suggesting that the Kremlin still retains the ability to de-escalate the situation.

Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based think-tank Edam, said that Moscow appeared to have chosen to allow Mr Erdogan to attack regime targets for a few days in order to “appease” public anger while also showing the Turkish president that “his ambitions in Idlib are still conditional on Russian acquiescence”.

Mr Ulgen argued that, given the continued vulnerability of Turkish soldiers in Idlib, Mr Erdogan would go to Moscow with a “weak hand” and was likely to be asked by Mr Putin to concede the regime’s recent gains and accept a narrower zone of influence. “If he doesn’t accept that, what’s the alternative?” Mr Ulgen said. “To go back to a military scenario, which is very risky.”

Murat Yesiltas, director of security studies at the Ankara think-tank Seta, which has close links to the Turkish government, said that Turkey could walk away if the two sides could not agree. “Pandora’s box has already been opened in terms of the potential for military conflict between Turkey and the regime,” he said.

“There is no way [Mr Erdogan] would drop everything in Idlib just because Vladimir Putin wanted him to,” added Mr Pukhov. “Is it possible to find a compromise? Yes. But it will only be a temporary compromise. The overall problem will not be fixed.”