Idlib quagmire exposes the limits of Turkish-Russian cooperation - analysis

Syria was the glue that tied Turkey and Russia together over the last few years, but ongoing tensions over the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib have exposed the limits of cooperation between two countries, said analyst Galip Dalay.

The developments in Idlib “contrast with the emerging picture of Turkish-Russian relations in the last few years, which were fast improving (drawing much international scrutiny),” Dalay said in an analysis for the Brookings Institute. 

The Russia-backed Syrian government in April launched an assault on Idlib, the last major rebel-held province in the country, despite a 2018 deal between Ankara and Moscow that aimed at establishing a demilitarised zone in the province, which is home to some 3 million people, including many displaced by Syria’s civil war.

Some 700,000 people have fled towards the Turkish border as the Syrian government has intensified its assault on the province in the last weeks, while 13 Turkish soldiers in Idlib were killed by Syrian shelling within a week. 

Syria was at the heart of deteriorating relations between Turkey and the United States, as Washington cooperated with Kurdish militia in the country in the battle against Islamic State, ignoring Ankara’s national security concerns, said Dalay. On the other hand, Russian acquiescence to Turkey’s military operations against Kurdish forces in northwestern Syria brought them closer, he said. 

“Therefore, the glue of Moscow-Ankara relations was Syria — to be more precise, the Syrian Kurds,” Dalay said, adding that the Astana process involving Turkey, Russia and Iran and the 2018 Sochi agreement over Idlib had also reshaped Turkish-Russian relations. 

But Turkey and Russia envision different endgame scenarios for Syria, Dalay said. 

“While Russia and its partner in Damascus long focused on winning the civil war in other parts of Syria, the recent onslaught on Idlib has shed daylight on Russian-Turkish differences and exposed the limits of their cooperation,” he said.

Beyond Syria, Turkey and Russia have competing strategic aspirations for almost all of their shared neighbourhood, Dalay said, adding that relations characterised by mistrust instead of geopolitical convergence had limits from the start.