Russian, Turkish officials step up talks on Idlib crisis

ANKARA: Talks between Ankara and Moscow over the fate of Idlib province, the last opposition-held stronghold in Syria, have intensified over the last two weeks, with senior Turkish and Russian officials holding several critical meetings.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned during a press conference with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov on Friday that a military assault on Idlib would be disastrous, and that clashes may last a long time.

The intensified diplomatic traffic between Moscow and Ankara is feeding speculation about a Russian-supported assault by the Syrian regime on Idlib in the near term.

Turkey, which hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees, has sounded alarm bells over a potential massive influx from the province.

Although the agenda of the Russian-Turkish meetings has not been made public, experts say Ankara is trying to prevent a regime assault on Idlib, and if it cannot be prevented, Turkey’s objective will be to prevent the targeting of moderate opposition groups and civilians.

Idlib is a “de-escalation zone” set up last year by Russia, Turkey and Iran through talks known as the Astana peace process.  Turkey’s military recently reinforced its 12 observation posts in the province with ballistic equipment and concrete walls.

Serhat Erkmen, a military expert at the Gendarmerie and Coast Guard Academy of Turkey, told Arab News that Ankara wants to prevent a regime assault because a refugee influx would undermine host countries’ territorial integrity and security.

If Ankara cannot prevent an assault, Turkey will try to convince Russia to distinguish between terrorist and moderate groups, he said.

Kerim Has, a lecturer on Turkish-Russian relations at Moscow State University, said Russia’s position is clear: To take control of Idlib soon with the support of the Syrian Army, and with Turkey’s “peaceful silence.”

He told Arab News: “Turkey can either open a corridor from Idlib to its zones of influence in Syria for the transfer of armed opposition groups that are keen on negotiations with Damascus, or organize these militants to fight and eliminate terrorist organizations there.”

Has said: “In both these scenarios, de facto cooperation between the Turkish and Syrian armies is expected on the ground.”

He added: “A new, tragic humanitarian crisis would be overcome by that corridor, possibly extending further into Turkey.”

If an assault on Idlib begins without a deal with Ankara, “it would mean that Moscow… doesn’t fear a severe reaction from the Turkish leadership,” said Has.  “Turkey’s inevitable unwillingness to disrupt ties with Russia at a time of cooling relations with the US would play into the Kremlin’s hands regarding Idlib.”

Moscow may still choose to wait until late October or November for an assault, to see how US-Turkish relations evolve, Has said.

Aaron Stein, senior resident fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, said although the US does not have a serious policy on Idlib, any Turkish-Russian-Iranian effort to wind down the conflict in the province will have to include outreach to Washington.

“The US will try and obstruct anything that it doesn’t find to be in its interests,” he told Arab News.

The UN’s Syria envoy will host Russian, Iranian and Turkish officials on Sept. 11-12 for talks on drafting a new Syrian constitution.

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