ANKARA: There has been heavy diplomatic traffic between Ankara and its Western allies since Russian warplanes began bombing Syria’s Idlib province, which borders Turkey and is home to more than 3 million civilians.
James Jeffrey, US special representative to Syria and a former ambassador to Turkey, visited Ankara on Tuesday, as did German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on Wednesday. They met their counterparts to discuss Syria.
US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo spoke with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu on Wednesday.
“Both agreed any Assad regime military offensive in Idlib would be an unacceptable, reckless escalation of the conflict in Syria,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert.
As Ankara and Berlin try to mend ties, Maas tweeted in Turkish upon his arrival that Turkey is a partner of Germany.
There are fears that an assault on Idlib could lead to 700,000 Syrians fleeing to Turkey and trying to go to Europe from there.
The Syrian regime, with the backing of Iran and Russia, is gearing up for a major military offensive in the province, which is controlled by various armed opposition groups.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently warned of a potential massacre if missiles are fired into Idlib.
During a joint press conference with Maas, Cavusoglu condemned Russia’s bombing of the province, and said the Turkish and German positions on Syria overlap.
Nicholas Danforth, a senior policy analyst at the Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Project, told Arab News: “The looming regime assault on Idlib represents an ideal opportunity for the US, Europe and Turkey to work together to forestall a strategic and humanitarian disaster.”
He added: “While none are eager to see extremist groups remain in control of the territory, all three have more to lose from a regime takeover that sends militants and refugees flooding into Turkey and perhaps on to Europe.”
Without Western military and diplomatic backing, Turkey would seem to have little choice but to accept, if not help facilitate, the Syrian regime’s plans, Danforth said.
With a trilateral summit between Turkey, Russia and Iran set to take place on Friday, Ankara’s stance on Idlib diverges from that of Moscow and Tehran. The province was originally designated a “de-escalation zone” by the three countries.
Kerim Has, a Moscow-based analyst on Turkish-Russian relations and Eurasian affairs, said Ankara’s increasing contacts with its Western partners may have little, if any, impact on Russian policy in Syria.
“Other than the US and UK, the leading European countries don’t have a strong presence on the ground in Syria,” he told Arab News.
“Europeans’ negotiations with Turkey are mostly related to a possible new refugee influx and a transfer of the jihadist threat to Europe,” he said.
“I think Russia and the EU have similar perspectives on eliminating the terrorist and jihadist threat on the ground without causing mass migration into Turkey and so on.”
The US and UK “may try to disrupt Moscow’s plans in Idlib and Russian-Turkish relations in general, but preventing the Idlib operation doesn’t seem to be a priority for them,” Has said.
He anticipates that at the trilateral summit, Erdogan will ask Moscow for more time to persuade the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham jihadist alliance to lay down its arms, to prevent Syrian regime forces from entering the center of Idlib, and to permit the creation of a safe zone along Turkey’s border with the province for refugees and Ankara-backed rebels.
“But I’m not sure that most of these requests will be welcomed by Moscow,” Has said. “In that sense, I don’t expect a critical or meaningful impact from Turkey’s recent dialogue with its Western partners on Russian plans in Idlib.”