Following the failure of the tripartite meeting in Tehran involving the Iranian, Turkish and Russian leaders, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan will head on Monday to Sochi to meet Russia’s Vladimir Putin in a bid to convince him to postpone the attack on Idlib for three to four weeks. He wants the time to take the necessary steps to neutralize the terrorist groups using the province as a shelter.
When the meeting in Tehran resulted in misunderstandings and a lack of cooperation regarding the upcoming battle in Idlib, Putin gave the order that there must no leniency with terrorists in the province and that he will not allow any of them into Russia.
Though preparations for Erdogan’s visit to Russia are on, Turkish forces have deployed tanks in the eastern suburbs of Idlib city for the first time since Syrian forces started massing reinforcements nearby. According to the latest reports, tanks and soldiers with heavy machinery and artillery crossed the Turkish border and entered Idlib.
The Erdogan-Putin meeting will focus mainly on the latest developments in Syria, as Ankara seeks a cease-fire in Idlib, while Russia regards an escalation as the only way to liquidate armed opposition factions. Turkey, which provides support to some opposition groups in Syria, fears a large-scale attack on Idlib close to its border, which could lead to more refugees flowing into its territory, adding to the burden on its troubled economy and weakening the Turkish position in the settlement of the Syrian conflict.
It has to be noted that Erdogan stands on very shaky ground on the world stage and is swinging between the rival camps of Russia and the West. He has long-term ambitions he is seeking to implement, playing on the differences between the camps and making contradictory statements. He does not want to let relations with either side deteriorate to conflict level as this would not be in Ankara’s interests. At the same time, Erdogan feels that he is being targeted by his old Western allies, including the US, and he does not want to anger Putin, who he believes would help bail his country out if targeted by a Western plot.
Turkey, which provides support to some opposition groups in Syria, fears a large-scale attack on Idlib close to its border, which could lead to more refugees flowing into its territory.
The West has warned Russia and the Assad regime against proceeding with a direct assault on Idlib. Previously the threats were only that they would take action in the case of a chemical attack, but now any military action may be followed by a response from the Western powers. Erdogan will definitely play this card and attempt to persuade Putin to wait before taking the final decision to allow Turkey more time to separate the terrorists from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) it supports. Erdogan in this sense will play a role as peacekeeper and mediator in the eyes of the West, as he is trying to stop Putin from sparking further violence and bloodshed in Syria.
Initially Turkey was not opposed to any military action against the militants in Idlib, but Ankara is now seeking a means to defuse the tensions temporarily and to neutralize as many terrorists as possible in order to avoid any refugee influx and to save the FSA and its own positions. Erdogan hopes to convince Putin that such terrorists would then be closer to Russia and this would not be in Moscow’s favor. However, it is unlikely that the Kremlin will yield to international pressure, regardless of who is making the call to think twice.
Damascus and Tehran are also putting pressure on Russia over its interests in Syria as they want to control all the territory in the country themselves, depriving the Western players of any leverage on the settlement of the Syrian issue.
Syria and Iran are looking to crash the last stronghold of the opposition, hoping that any wins will be more significant than any risks and losses. But they are underestimating the probable response of the West, which might be catastrophic for all their gains and for Russia and its interests as well. Nevertheless, sources in Moscow believe that the Idlib operation will not start before Oct. 10, and Erdogan will not be capable of preventing it.
First published at Arab News