Idlib Crisis: the end of Astana or a new beginning?

Idlib Crisis: the end of Astana or a new beginning?

A military delegation from Russia will visit Turkey on Saturday to discuss the situation in Syrian Idlib. Relations between Turkey and Russia escalated amid the Syrian Arab Army offensive which left six Turkish troops dead in the Syrian province. The Turkish side responded with a massive strike against the positions of Syrian troops.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made these claims not only to Damascus, but also to Moscow. The position of Moscow, in turn, was complicated by the death of several Russian military specialists in Idlib, which was admitted by the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Despite threats by President Erdogan and calls by the Turkish leadership to the Syrian army to stop the offensive in Idlib , the Syrian Arab army took the city of Sarakaib on February 6. In turn, Turkey announced an increase in military forces in the region. On January 7, a convoy of 150 trucks with special forces, military equipment and ammunition reached the Syrian border of the southern Turkish province of Hatay, bordering Syria, to be transferred to Idlib. The Turkish army also establishes new observation posts in the province.

American bait

Against this background, it should be noticed that the United States has taken advantage of the cool in Russian-Turkish relations. On February 4, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reacted to the deaths of six Turkish troops and supported the attacks on the positions of the Syrian troops. At the same time, the head of American diplomacy blamed Russia, Iran and Hezbollah in the aggravation of the situation.

Almost simultaneously the US Court of Appeals granted the Turkish state bank Halkbank a delay in the criminal proceedings. The bank is now threatened with multi-billion fines due to violation of anti-Iranian sanctions in the past.

Earlier during the HalkBank process, Erdogan’s name was mentioned. Turkish trader Reza Zarrab accused him of organizing a scheme to circumvent anti-Iran sanctions. Experts believe that the trial in an American court could adversely affect the relations between the two countries and even lead to sanctions against Ankara by Washington.

The US appeals court agreed to pause the case can be regarded as an attempt to exert pressure on Ankara for the purpose of stirring up tension between Turkey and Syria, Iran and Russia

Threats to the Astana process

In September 2018, Russia and Turkey signed an agreement in Sochi on the creation of a demilitarized zone in Idlib, where more than a dozen different units are located. The largest of them are the “National Liberation Front” and “Dzhebhat anti-Nusra.” There are about 30,000 fighters in this zone. In turn, Russia helped contain possible Syrian Arab Army offenses. However, Moscow is now allowing Damascus to launch the offensive. It is possible that Moscow’s position was influenced, as some Turkish experts note, by the United States, which is hoping to push the Turkish military back into its sphere of influence.

On January 8, a Russian delegation is due to arrive in Ankara to discuss the Idlib issue. Earlier the intensification of conflicts between the military of the two countries was reported. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan discussed this issue with Vladimir Putin. Thus, both countries have demonstrated that they respect each other’s positions and are determined to resolve the differences through negotiations.

The desire to act as an intermediary between the authorities of Syria and Turkey was also announced by Iran. The corresponding statement was made the day before by the Iranian representative to the UN, Majid Takht-Ravanchi.

“Iran is ready to do its best to settle differences between Damascus and Ankara over Developments in Idlib province,” said Iranian representatives.

The situation in Idlib is not for the first threat to cooperation in the framework of the Ankara-Moscow-Tehran triangle (known as the Astana process). Moreover, only the forces opposing both Syria, Turkey, Russia and Iran stand to benefit.

The US opposes Turkey’s efforts to strengthen its sovereignty and hopes to institute regime change in the country.

Difficult ally or Eurasian enemy? Turkey in the eyes of American think tanks

If Turkey continues to spoil relations with Iran and Russia over Syria, it will still not help improve ties with the Americans, as Washington is bent on regime change. In other words, if Ankara continues to follow this course, it will end up isolated.

It is worth keeping in mind that the Americans will continue to support Kurdish formations close to the terrorist Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in any event. If Turkey ends up face to face with the United States in Syria and loses the support of Iran and Russia, then its position on this issue will be significantly weakened. While Washington can make any promise to the Kurds, the truth is that, given the active position of the Kurdish lobby in the Republican and Democratic Parties, the United States is not likely to make concessions to Turkey on this issue.

Problems: strategic and tactical

The problems in relations between Turkey and the USA are conceptual and strategic. Sovereign Turkey does not fit into the structure of global hegemony of the United States. Turkey’s problems with Syria, Iran and Russia are tactical. All of these countries are nonetheless united by the desire for a multipolar world. Contradictions arise on specific issues of control over certain territories. Although they seem sharp, they are not as deep as problems in relations with the United States.

The conflict in Idlib demonstrates the need for ongoing contacts between the parties. However, apparently Russia and Iran are somewhere limited in their role as mediators. Perhaps Ankara should think about developing a direct dialogue with Damascus so that cases such as the recent deaths of six Turkish soldiers will not be repeated. Recent negotiations in Moscow between the head of the National Intelligence Organization Hakan Fidan and the head of Syrian intelligence Ali Mamluk show that such a format of communication is possible. It should be expanded and made permanent.

Establishing a direct dialogue between the Syrian and Turkish leaders would prevent the United States from seizing the initiative or driving a wedge between Turkey and Iran and Russia, in order to subsequently isolate each of the three countries.

The real threat to Turkey’s national security is the PKK. In order to destroy the PKK, support is needed for the territorial integrity of Syria and cooperation with the Syrian government. Damascus is the other power most interested in suppressing this separatist force. The disconnected Syrian opposition is not a force that can unite the country in the near future and put an end to Kurdish separatism.

It is worth expecting that provocateurs in Turkey, as well as in Russia and Iran, fulfilling the order of their American patrons, will try to use the situation in Idlib in order to create new hotbeds of tension. It is possible that such forces exist in Syria. In other words, the strike against the Turkish military could be a provocation aimed at spoiling relations between Moscow and Ankara.

In any case, judging by the reaction of the parties involved the aggravation in Idlib, this situation will serve as a test of strength for the Astana troika than the end of the negotiation format. Now, diplomats must work to solve the problem by reharmonizing diverging interests. The common denominator must be unconditional support for the territorial integrity of Syria.

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