When Turkey, Russia and Iran announced an agreement to launch a fresh initiative for a political settlement in Syria through a conference in Sochi on Jan. 29 and 30, hopes were raised for a breakthrough and an end to the years-long civil war that claimed the lives of nearly one million civilians.
The three guarantor countries had outlined a roadmap at a leaders’ level summit in November 2017 and agreed to hold what they called Syrian National Dialogue Congress with the participation of all ethnic, religious and sectarian groups.
However, immediately after this, the Syrian army launched a two-phase military offensive, first in East Guta and second in Idlib. In both regions there are powerful armed units of the moderate opposition as well as jihadist groups controlling certain residential areas.
The Syrian army’s advance into East Guta was not so difficult given the field conditions and the size of the opposition groups. But Idlib constitutes another case entirely.
The center and outskirts of Idlib city are under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and are also home to around one million civilians, as well as to armed moderate groups deemed to be taking place in the upcoming peace talks.
Furthermore, Idlib was chosen as one of four “de-escalation zones” by Turkey, Russia and Iran in a bid to cement an ongoing year-long ceasefire between the Syrian army and the moderate groups. Due to its geographical proximity, Turkey was assigned the task of monitoring the truce in Idlib through “observation posts” to be formed by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK).
However, the Syrian offensive into Idlib gained momentum in the first days of 2018, as it captured control of certain towns in the region with increased civilian casualties. In the same days, reports showed that Russian bases in Syria were attacked through armed drones, with few casualties.
Needless to say, Turkey is seriously concerned about the escalation in tension because it knew that it will be the one most affected by the breaking of a ceasefire between the regime and the opposition.
All of Ankara’s concerns have been explicitly delivered to Russia over the past week by President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu through phone conversations with their counterparts. In addition, the ambassadors of Russia and Iran have also been summoned to the Foreign Ministry. If necessary, in-person meetings between senior government officials of the two sides could also be arranged before the Sochi congress.
Turkish diplomats in Ankara say those concerns can be summarized under four main items:
Violation of the Astana deal: Turkey says the Syrian army’s advance into the north is a clear breach of a three-way deal between Turkey, Russia and Iran in Astana in mid-October. The Astana agreement draws a clear map of the area that will be under Turkey’s monitoring but the Syrian army penetrated into this designated section, which also complicates the TSK’s monitoring duties. Turkey told Russia that the continuation of the Syrian operation would nullify the Astana agreement and therefore the ongoing ceasefire between the two fighting groups. It also stressed that the operation by the Syrian regime is seen as an effort to gain more territory and to weaken opposition groups ahead of the Sochi congress.
A senior Turkish diplomatic source said they understood Russia’s disturbance at the recent drone attacks on its bases, but the Syrian army’s offensive into Idlib was much more than a proportionate reply or retaliation to these attacks. “The Syrian army is doing another thing there. [The regime’s] military acts in Idlib are a clear violation of the Astana [agreement],” they said..
The Sochi process could collapse: “The attacks of the Syrian army are targeting opposition groups as well as civilians in Idlib. The continuation of this offensive will put joint efforts to find a political solution to the question in Sochi at risk,” said a senior diplomatic source. Ankara has also conveyed this message to Moscow, underlining that it has taken them one year to reach this point. It also told Moscow that opposition group’s representatives held meetings in Ankara last week and conveyed strong disturbance over Damascus’ offensive. That is why Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım told reporters in Ankara on Jan. 12 that the only outcome of this military offensive could be nothing other than the derailment of the peace process.
Humanitarian tragedy: Another concern that Turkey has is the fact that this military offensive of the Syrian regime could spark a fresh humanitarian tragedy. Movement to the north of displaced locals in the region has already been monitored. Yıldırım accused the Syrian army of not distinguishing civilians from terrorists and expressed Ankara’s concern that this might lead to another mass influx into Turkey. “We are taking measures to avoid grave consequences of this military offensive,” he added.
Identifying targets together: Turkish diplomats also say Ankara has been proposing to Moscow and Tehran that they identify targets in Idlib together, in order to prevent civilian casualties and protect opposition groups from a unilateral operation. Ankara believes that HTS terrorists and civilians live together in many parts of Idlib and any effort to eliminate the terrorists requires meticulous work.