Uncomfortable Idlib: Will Russia and Turkey Be Able to Deal with the Syrian Conflicts?


Ankara has declared two days ago  that Russia and Iran must stop the entry of Syrian troops into Idlib. According to the Turkish minister for foreign affairs, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, president Bashar Al-Assad’s troops are continuing to enter the border territory.

What is more, Çavuşoğlu said that Turkish troops have begun the deployment of a fourth observation post in the largest region of Idlib, which is now under the control of the Syrian opposition. 

The day before, the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs demanded an explanation from the Russian and Iranian ambassadors on this issue. According to Ankara, the Syrian government forces “are disrupting the ceasefire in the Idlib de-escalation zone” and Assad’s army is attacking the ‘moderate opposition’ under the pretext of actions against ‘Djhabhat al-Nusra’ (a terrorist organisation that is banned in Russia).

Problematic Idlib

Idlib is located in the Turkish zone, which is why it isn’t surprising that Ankara is trying to control it. We note, that four de-escalation zones are active in Syria: Idlib, which is part of Hama province, the second is the area north of Homs, the third in the area of Eastern Guta (a suburb of Damascus), the fourth in the province of Deraa on the Syrian-Jordanian border. 

Idlib is a complex place, which will not become any better by the deployment of Turkish observation posts if we are to consider the militant factor. We should not forget, that at the end of November 2017 military engagements between Turkish and Kurd forces in the north of the canton of Afrin (which includes the settlements of Topal, Iqdam, and Zakhr) broke out.  

The enclave around the city of Afrin is under the control of Syrian Kurds from the pro-American SDS, which is in direct opposition to Turkey’s interests. Earlier, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan directly declared that these forces should leave the region, having also named them terrorists. This is why entering troops into Idlib was not just necessary for the support of local fighters, but also for the Turks to blockade Afrin from the direction of Idlib.

The pacification of combatants in Idlib is impossible if one or the other group is supported, as we must take into account their varied character, continuous spats and conflicts between them, the mosaic character of the groups, continuous changes in the loyalty of low- and mid-level commanders, and the complex mountain landscape of the region.

The simplest solution is a direct occupation of the territory by the Turkish Armed Forces, but:
- First, this would require significant forces and means and will draw attention away from solving the Kurd problem in Syria.
- Second, this will require all the forces of the Turkish Army, and a clean victory isn’t a given. Ankara will have to fight against the local combatants, and the multi-month ‘Shield of the Euphrates’ campaign against ISIS (a terrorist organisation that is forbidden in Russia) ended with very meagre results.
- Third, Ankara cannot take this liberty because of its former strategy, under the auspices of which Turkey bet on Assad being couped. Should a full-scale operation commence, former heroes of the anti-government resistance will become opponents of Turkey.


The problem of control over Idlib will inevitably become one of the main questions in Moscow-Teheran-Ankara relations. If we consider the fact that the Turks do not fully control Idlib, the chance of provocations grows. 

As the Russian Ministry of Defence notes, the drones that attacked Russian military facilities in Khmeimim and Tartus in the night of the 5th of January were launched from the ‘Idlib’ de-escalation zone.

The Russians already informed the Turkish High Command and intelligence agencies.  “The documents speak of the need to have Ankara fulfil the duties it has taken upon itself which concern the observation of the ceasefire of military groups and the beginning of work on the deployment of observation posts in the ‘Idlib’ de-escalation zone”, - notes the Russian Ministry of Defence.

Earlier, the Ministry hinted that the Americans might be involved in the attacks on Russian bases. During the attacks, an American ‘Poseidon’ intelligence aircraft was seen patrolling the region.

The third power, the US, might very likely use the Idlib territory and the fighters within it for provocations with the aim of destroying the Russian-Iran-Turkey alliance by exploiting Ankara’s relatively weak control over the territory.

For the time being, Idlib is the ‘Achilles heel’ of the Moscow-Ankara-Teheran ‘troika’. In order to not allow provocations from any side, the three countries need intensive cooperation and active action to strengthen trilateral trust.

Turkey need guarantees that Idlib will remain in its sphere of influence, seeing as (at the current moment) is takes any actions against the local fighters, especially by Syrian government troops, as encroachment on its interests.

On the other hand, Russia and Iran need to get reciprocal guarantees from Ankara that the fighters in the Turkish zone of control won’t fight against Russian and Iranian forces and their allies. In return, they can even support tendencies in the ‘Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham’ for legalisation. Removing the organisation from terror lists and the ‘moderate’ status could serve as a basis for neutrality or silent loyalty.

In the near future, a telephone conversation between Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian president Vladimir Putin might take place. This is a good signal. It means that both sides are ready to make agreements and avoid ‘sharp corners’.

Simultaneously, a meeting between the foreign affairs ministers of Russia and Iran, Sergei Lavrov and Javad Zarif, is taking place.

As Ankara has about as much problems (if not more) with the Americans, it likely wants a peaceful solution to the problems. In the opposite situation, the country simply does not have any serious allies left. What is more, it is strongly in Erdogan’s interest to secure Russian support in the Kurd question and to keep political and economic ties.  

Translated from the Russian by V.A.V.