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Analysis

Turkey-Russia discord over Idlib defers regime offensive, for now

Analyst says Moscow wary of backing major assault on last rebel stronghold in Syria as it needs a ‘Sunni power to balance Shiite militias’ presence’

A Syrian rebel fighter from the recently-formed "National Liberation Front" takes part in combat training at an unknown location in the northern countryside of the Idlib province on September 11, 2018, in anticipation for an upcoming offensive by government forces. (AFP Photo/Aaref Watad)
A Syrian rebel fighter from the recently-formed "National Liberation Front" takes part in combat training at an unknown location in the northern countryside of the Idlib province on September 11, 2018, in anticipation for an upcoming offensive by government forces. (AFP Photo/Aaref Watad)

ISTANBUL (AFP) — Disagreement between Turkey and Russia over how to tackle the Syrian rebel stronghold of Idlib seems to have deferred a looming regime offensive on the province, analysts say.

Russia and Turkey are on opposite sides of the conflict, but key global allies.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with his Russian and Iranian counterparts Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani in Tehran on September 7 to discuss Syria, just as a major assault by Russia-backed regime forces on Idlib appeared imminent.

But discord at the summit between Erdogan and Putin, in a rare scene captured on camera, may have prompted Russia to postpone the Idlib strike so as not to provoke Ankara, which is fiercely opposed to a military option.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) shakes hands with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their meeting in Tehran on September 7, 2018. (AFP Photo/Pool/Kirill Kudryavtsev)

“I believe an offensive, if there will be one, will not come before several weeks,” a senior Turkish official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Turkey, which backs rebels fighting against President Bashar Assad’s regime, co-sponsors — with regime allies Russia and Iran — the so-called Astana talks launched in January 2017 in the quest for a lasting ceasefire.

To date, the dialogue has resulted in the creation of four pre-ceasefire “de-escalation zones” in Syria, including in Idlib.

Syrians from the rebel-held northern city of Idlib and its surrounding towns wave opposition flags and chant slogans as they gather for an anti-government demonstration in Idlib on September 14, 2018. (AFP Photo/Omar Haj Kadour)

Idlib is the last major opposition stronghold in the war-torn country. Sixty percent of the area is controlled by the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist group, an al-Qaeda branch operating in Syria.

Intense negotiations have taken place between Turkey and Russia since the failure of the Tehran summit, to hammer out a compromise in a bid to avert an assault which Erdogan has cautioned would ignite a “bloodbath.”

Such a compromise could include neutralizing the HTS — officially designated as a terror group by Ankara. Erdogan and Putin are expected to discuss the issue when they meet in the Russian resort city of Sochi on Monday.

Compromise formula

For Turkey, the stakes are high.

Ankara fears a large-scale assault on Idlib, which lies on its southern border, could trigger a massive flow of refugees onto its soil. Turkey is already home to more than 3 million Syrians who have fled the conflict.

Abdul Wahab Assi, an analyst at the Syria-based Jusoor Studies Center, said disagreements at the Tehran summit “rule out a possible offensive in the short run, at least until the end of the year.”

He said a possible compromise from the ongoing talks could take the form of a “limited military operation or surgical strikes” targeting the HTS, or modifying the borders of the de-escalation zones to keep armed rebels from certain sectors.

Smoke rises near the Syrian village of Kafr Ain in the southern countryside of Idlib province after an airstrike on September 7, 2018. (AFP Photo/Anas Al-Dyab)

Russia may be open to such a plan, Assi said, as long as it would secure the Idlib section of the Aleppo-Damascus highway and put an end to drone attacks launched from Idlib against Moscow’s main military base of Hmeimim in the neighboring province of Latakia.

Some 3 million people live in Idlib province and adjacent areas, the United Nations says, around half of whom have already fled their homes in other parts of Syria.

Regime forces and Russian warplanes resumed airstrikes on Idlib in September but the strikes fell in intensity this week.

Turkish ‘defensive’ reinforcements

Turkish media reported Ankara has sent reinforcements, including tanks, to beef up its border with Syria and its observation posts in Idlib.

Turkish military analyst Metin Gurcan judges these measures to be of a “defensive” nature, aimed at protecting Turkish observation posts against any possible threat.

A handout picture released by Turkey’s military shows Turkish soldiers accompanied by armored vehicles patrolling between the city of Manbij in northern Syria and an area it controls after a 2016-2017 military incursion on June 18, 2018. (Turkish Armed Forces/AFP)

Gurcan said the lack of an agreement with Ankara could push Moscow, and thus the Syrian regime, to stage an “incremental operation that will last months” rather than a full-fledged attack.

“Russia is trying to keep Ankara in the game,” he told AFP, saying any confrontation between the two countries was “highly unlikely.”

“Moscow needs Turkey as a Sunni power to balance Shiite militias’ presence in northern Syria,” he said.

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