Russian, Turkish and Iranian leaders met in Tehran on Friday to try to negotiate a resolution to the Syrian conflict, even as Russian and Syrian warplanes continued to attack rebel-held territory in Idlib and the surrounding area. In the meeting, Turkey advocated a cease-fire, which Russia rejected. Whether a full-scale ground assault is imminent, however, remains unclear. According to Turkish media, Russia will continue the airstrikes but would not support a full-scale, regime-led offensive. A ground assault by Bashar Assad on Idlib, the last remaining opposition stronghold, which has an estimated 60,000-100,000 rebels, would be extremely costly and could weaken Assad’s military and control in other parts of the country.
Even as the conference took place, Turkey reinforced its own positions throughout Idlib, and the U.S. continued to warn that Assad appeared to be preparing for a chemical weapons attack, while Russia said it was the rebels who could launch a chemical attack, with U.S. support. The U.S. also announced on Friday that its forces would remain in Syria indefinitely.
What happens next in Idlib depends on how much control Russia has over Assad, and whether Russia thinks Turkey, which has had strained relations with Washington of late, will pivot back to the Western orbit. For Assad, retaking control of the entire country is his top priority. But for Russia, which has supported Assad in the civil war since 2015, its interests go far beyond this small corner of northwest Syria. If Russia can keep Turkey from turning back to the West, it will hesitate to launch a major offensive in the province. But if it believes this realignment is out of reach, it will be more likely to support ground operations, even if it risks threatening Turkish forces in the area.
Russia Defends Its Interests
Russia has watched intently as Turkey has distanced itself from the U.S. over tariffs, U.S. support for the Syrian Kurds and Ankara’s purchase of military systems from Russia. It doesn’t want to push Turkey into mending ties with the U.S. by initiating an assault on Idlib that would force a military response from Ankara. Indeed, turning a U.S. ally and historical Russian adversary into a partner would be a major strategic coup for Moscow. Ultimately, Russia cares relatively little about who controls Idlib. In Moscow’s eyes, the battle for Idlib is about defending its interests against the U.S. by pulling Turkey away from the Western camp.
For Turkey, however, what happens in Idlib really does matter. It has had forces in the province for about a year. It wants to stop the flow of cross-border refugees, and a regime assault on Idlib would risk sending hundreds of thousands or even millions of Syrians, including jihadists, into Turkey, even as its economy is struggling to cope with a plummeting currency. (Turkey is already home to some 3.5 million Syrian refugees.) Turkey also views the Assad regime as a potential enemy, and maintaining a presence in northern Syria makes that enemy far less threatening. If Russia can’t prevent or limit an offensive by the Syrian regime there, Turkey will start to have second thoughts about forging a stronger strategic partnership with Russia. After all, Syria isn’t exactly a major power, and if Russia can’t even control Damascus, it would be a sign of Russian weakness in a region in which Turkey has significant interests.
So how much control does Russia have over Assad? Assad was certainly dependent on Russian air support in his fight to wrestle back control over much of Syria. But in a full-scale invasion of Idlib, Russian air support would likely be limited because Moscow doesn’t want to risk confronting Turkish forces or Turkish proxies there. Moscow’s ability to control Assad’s actions, therefore, will decline if it can’t protect Syrian forces from a rebel assault emanating from Idlib. But if Turkey can’t prevent Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a militant group that controls much of the province, and other al-Qaida-linked groups from attacking Assad’s positions in northwest Syria – and there’s no reason to believe it can – Assad will want to eliminate them completely. That would encourage Assad to act regardless of what Russia wants.
Russia has therefore been searching for a way to separate the groups that Turkey can control from those it can’t. On Thursday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said, “We are now taking the most active effort, together with our Turkish colleagues … to split the armed normal opposition forces from the terrorists on the ground.” In this case, “terrorists” are simply those groups in Idlib that Turkey can’t manage and that could force an Assad offensive. But separating members of terrorist organizations from members of other militant groups in a place like Idlib would be extremely difficult. HTS is concentrated in southern Idlib, but finding its fighters in the rest of the province would likely require the help of Turkey, which has proxies in the province that fought HTS earlier this year.
There is room for a deal that would involve Russia, Turkey and the Syrian regime banding together to eliminate HTS and other al-Qaida-linked groups. In exchange, Turkey would be allowed some territorial control in northern Idlib and Afrin province. Turkey, along with its proxies, would then agree to pursue extremist rebel groups in territory it controls. Ankara has reportedly suggested a plan along these lines, whereby rebel groups, including HTS, would be peacefully removed from Idlib in return for Syrian and Russian restraint. Neither side would be particularly pleased with that outcome, which is usually a good place to start for a compromise.
Feeling the Heat
Regardless of whether a deal can be reached, it’s clear that Turkey is feeling the heat in Idlib and beyond. In recent months, Ankara’s anti-American rhetoric has escalated, and it has even threatened to limit American forces’ access to Incirlik air base. Incirlik has long been seen as Turkey’s main leverage over the U.S., but Washington has recently made it clear that its military has other options. On Tuesday, Gen. Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced that the U.S. is considering expanding its military presence in Greece, another historical adversary of Turkey. He specifically mentioned Greece’s proximity to the Syrian war and other developments in the eastern Mediterranean. U.S. officials who briefed reporters on the announcement even revealed that specific locations are already being considered for military exercises and other operations. The U.S., in other words, is calling Turkey’s bluff.
Russia has an interest in cooperating with Turkey in Syria, if for no other reason than to prevent it from reaching out to the U.S. and NATO for support. Yet, it wasn’t so long ago that Turkey and Russia were at odds – it’s easy to forget that Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet almost three years ago. As for Turkey, it is, as always, caught in the middle. Turkey’s pull over Russia really comes down to its membership in the Western alliance, and Turkey may try to use this leverage to prevent a bloodbath in Idlib. Even so, until Turkey can develop a military powerful enough to deter Russia on its own, it has to continue to depend on the U.S. and NATO. The only way Russia could hope to minimize that dependency is by showing that it is both willing and able to defend, or at least avoid interfering with, Turkish interests in the region. Though Idlib itself is relatively inconsequential to Russia, it is a litmus test for Moscow’s ability to counter U.S. power by courting one of Washington’s longstanding allies.