Although the Russian and Turkish militaries resumed patrolling operations in northern Syria on 17 February, Moscow and Ankara remain dissatisfied with the developments on the ground. Middle East experts Ghassan Kadi and Christopher Assad have explained Turkey’s two-front strategy in Syria and Libya which has put Russo-Turkish relations to the test.
In the aftermath of Monday talks, the Turkish leadership complained that Russia-Turkey bilateral discussions are still far from meeting Ankara’s demands. At the same time, the Kremlin highlights that the objectives of the Sochi agreement have yet to be reached.
‘There’s No Moderate Opposition in Idlib Zone’
One of the provisions of the Sochi agreement on Idlib struck by Moscow and Ankara on 17 September 2018 stipulated that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham* and other radical groups would leave the demilitarised zone entirely while the so-called “moderate” rebels would disarm and be allowed to stay in the region, something that has yet to be done.
Commenting on the situation surrounding Idlib on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stressed that “the demilitarised zone in the whole Idlib zone perimeter” outlined in the Turco-Russian Sochi agreement “has not been created yet“. Besides, Lavrov underscored that terrorists operating within the zone “are not guaranteed safety”.
“First of all, there are no ‘moderate opposition’ fighters in Idlib”, says Ghassan Kadi, a Middle Eastern expert, blogger and political analyst of Syrian descent. “That term was introduced to the agreement to appease Erdogan. Nonetheless, Russia and Syria have waited long enough for him to commit to the Astana and Sochi agreements, and they could not wait any longer because left alone, he would never do it”.
Christopher Assad, a Canada-based political analyst of Syrian origin, echoes Kadi by criticising the Turks for non-compliance with the agreement struck with Russia and Iran in 2018. According to the analyst, it appears that Ankara’s unwillingness to disarm jihadists stems from Turkey’s supposed intention to use them as proxies to maintain control in northern Syria.
Tensions grew high two weeks ago when Turkish troops came under fire from the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) conducting a counter-terror operation in the Idlib province that remains the last jihadi stronghold in the country. While Syrian government forces are seeking to eradicate jihadi elements operating under the auspices of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham*, the Turks have to date amassed a considerable military force in the region. On 15 February, President Recep Erdogan demanded that the SAA leave the Idlib province accusing Damascus of breaching the ceasefire agreement and threatening military action in case the government forces continue their offensive.
Turkey’s Libya Strategy: Oil & Political Interests
The simmering conflict in Idlib is not the only military theatre Turkey is involved in. On 16 January, Erdogan announced that Turkey would be sending troops to Tripoli under a November security agreement with the Government of National Accord (GNA). According to the Guardian, hundreds of troops from the Syrian National Army (SNA), an umbrella of Syrian rebel groups funded by Turkey, have been deployed in Libya starting from December.
Ankara decided to throw its weight behind the GNA. However, Tripoli currently controls about 10 per cent of the country’s territory while the larger part is held by forces loyal to Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar.
On 19 February, Erdogan announced while addressing the ruling AK Party gathering, that if the Libyan warring parties fail to strike an agreement, Turkey will support the GNA in taking control of the whole country.
“This gamble of Erdogan has two aspects that have no relation to supporting the Western-backed GNA on political grounds”, Kadi presumes. “First of all, he wants to expand Turkish regional role, and secondly he is desperate to get his hands on oil”.
According to the analyst, Ankara is seeking to maintain control over offshore oil belonging to Syria and Cyprus, as well as Libyan natural resources. In November 2019, the GNA and Ankara delineated maritime borders on the Eastern Mediterranean laying claims of sovereignty over the areas in the energy-rich parts of the sea.
For his part, Assad opines that “the two-front Turkish policy also indicates the presence of a Turkish exit strategy from the Syrian war”.
He suggests that by supporting the GNA and Ennahdha Movement in Tunisia, Ankara is seeking “to empower them and ensure that Egypt’s anti-Muslim influence does not fill the void left after the demise of the secular governments in each of the two countries”.
“Add to that the potential rewards Turkey may gain in terms of oil and gas concessions and in tightening the noose by flanking Egypt (Israel to the East and Sudan to the South) in the eastern Mediterranean if the policy of empowering political Islam in that part of MENA succeeds”, the political analyst observes.
Why Ankara Puts Turco-Russian Ties at Risk
While transiting Syrian troops to Tripoli, Erdogan subjected Moscow to criticism over its alleged military involvement in Libya, something that the Kremlin resolutely denies.
One might ask as to why Ankara risks deteriorating Russo-Turkish relations over Syrian and Libyan standoffs.
“All Turkey wanted was normal economic relations, the S-400 and a gas pipeline, in the meantime they’d have had ample time to finish their project in Syria”, Assad says, suggesting that on other fronts Ankara is willing to resume cooperation with Washington which has already made clear that US-Turkish interests in Syria and Libya overlap.
According to Kadi, Erdogan’s supposed attempt to play both sides of the fence may go wrong, because “if he now fully and openly turns against Russia and goes back to America’s bosom, the Kurdish conflict of interests between him and America will re-emerge”.
“Policies based on changing sides will always end up against a deal wall”, the Kadi notes, calling Erdogan’s actions a serious mistake.