By David Isaly
Though some Syria watchers have anticipated an escalation of violence in Northern Syria over the last two weeks, the most recent talks between Putin and Erdogan have only yielded kind words, at least publicly.
Presenting a friendly demeanor, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recip Tayyib Erdogan met on September 29 to discuss Syria, Libya, and the Caucasus, along with broader security concerns for their respective countries.
Erdogan showed interest in purchasing more Russian defense systems and increasing trade with Russia. At the same time, Putin seemingly agreed to pause any possible ground operations in Northern Syria, if at least for the moment. Both leaders stand to benefit from this diplomacy, but Russia has gained far more for a lot less.
For months, the Russian Air Force has slowly turned up the heat in Northern Syria, incrementally expanding its air war against the rebel-held Idlib pocket, which is dominated by the extremist group Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). These strikes started increasing early in the year, but have accelerated in the last month.
Then, just a few days before the meeting, on September 25 and 26, the Russian Air Force conducted airstrikes on targets located in Turkish-occupied Northern Syria, which was a serious military escalation. Indeed, some of the areas that Russian warplanes targeted had never been attacked before, sending a clear message to Turkey: Putin wants concessions.
To avoid rudeness, neither Russia nor the Syrian government attacked Idlib on the day of the meeting, showcasing Putin’s pragmatic nature when dealing with Turkey. Though Russian words regarding Syria have been somewhat aggressive recently, Putin is not rushing to end the conflict. Rebel-held Idlib is Putin’s most powerful bargaining chip in his negotiations with Turkey, and this is for one cynical reason: Idlib’s large refugee and civilian population.
If Russia and the regime were to launch a full-scale operation to capture Idlib, it would drive millions of refugees into Turkey. Such an extreme situation could ruin Erdogan’s domestic image and possibly spell the end of his reign. To avoid such a crisis, Erdogan must appease Russia when he can and resettle as many refugees in Syria as possible.
This resettlement policy partially drives Turkey’s current war with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its allies, which includes the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The U.S. technically views the PKK as a terrorist group, as it is fighting a NATO ally, but this has not stopped recent administrations from arming and supporting Kurdish forces in Syria that are heavily affiliated with the PKK.
American support for the SDF has pushed U.S.-Turkey relations to an all-time low, and it seems that Joe Biden is weary of a Turkey led by Erdogan, at least for now. Erdogan’s game of courting both Russia and the U.S. may be losing steam, thus forcing him to further appease Russia as the U.S. pulls away.
Putin and Erdogan like to look friendly for the cameras, but Moscow and Ankara oppose each other in almost every regional conflict in which they are involved. Their friendship is not meant to last.
Before the meeting, some analysts believed that the agreement would be an exchange of territory. Russia and the regime would seize the M4 highway, which runs from Latakia to Aleppo, and the rebel-held territory south of it. In return, Turkey would get more territory on the border in which it could settle refugees and deny Kurdish forces strategic terrain.
There are signs that an offensive could come soon, but it is not clear when. On October 4, government reinforcements deployed to Idlib. This does not necessarily mean that a military operation is imminent. As an important side note, it does not appear that US President Joe Biden would support or allow another military operation against Kurdish-controled Northeast Syria.
Regardless of troop deployment, there will almost certainly be an air campaign spearheaded by Russian warplanes preceding any ground advance. Every government offensive in recent years has included a Russian-led air campaign, and there is nothing to indicate that this will change in the future. Though airstrikes have been frequent over the last month, they have not yet reached a level that would indicate an offensive.
As for right now, it seems that there will not be a dramatic upheaval of the status quo, but that can easily change. Capturing only some of Idlib would give Russia and the Assad regime a strategic victory while not causing a serious refugee flow into Turkey.
Airstrikes in Idlib will continue, but it is unclear if there will be any more strikes in areas under Turkish control. It seems that no such strikes will occur, at least for now.
Idlib will remain in purgatory, and it seems that the final battle has been pushed off yet again.
David Isaly is a recent graduate from New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study, where he specialized in domestic and international security with a strong focus on the Middle East.