Analysts see makings of another Russia-Turkey flare-up in Syria

But attacks in the north-east could also be 'a reaction to Turkey escalating in Libya'

TOPSHOT - A fireball erupts from the site of an explosion reportedly targeting a joint Turkis-Russian patrol on the strategic M4 highway, near the Syrian town of Ariha in the rebel-held northwestern Idlib province, on July 14, 2020. / AFP / Mohammed AL-RIFAI
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Attacks in northern Syria have raised fears for a fragile four-month truce amid the growing risk that conflicts in other parts of the world could impact on the Turkey-Russia agreement.

This week saw a roadside bomb on the M4 highway injure members of a joint Russian-Turkish patrol operating under the ceasefire agreed for Idlib province, Syria’s final rebel bastion.

Hours after Tuesday’s attack, Russian warplanes conducted air strikes across north-west Syria.

The following day, Russian planes reportedly bombed Al Bab, a city in northern Aleppo province that has been under the control of Turkey and its allied militias since 2017. Analysts said the strike could have been a response to Turkey’s involvement in the Libyan conflict, where, as in Syria, Moscow and Ankara back opposing sides.

Alexey Khlebnikov, a Middle East expert and Russian foreign policy analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, said attacks on patrols in Idlib could give Russia a “legitimate reason” to pressure Turkey into reining in the opposition fighters it supports but whom Moscow considers terrorists.

“If Turkey won’t do that, Russia might undertake a limited operation,” he said.

There are concerns the ceasefire, which ended a Syrian government offensive that left hundreds dead and sent a fresh wave of displaced people towards the Turkish border, could unravel as previous truces have done.

“The Russian and regime strategy towards Idlib specifically has been an incremental military one,” said Dareen Khalifa, International Crisis Group’s senior analyst on Syria. “You bite away bits and pieces, you stop, agree a ceasefire with the Turks and you pause momentarily but there are always reasons to break the ceasefire again.”

She added: “Eventually, this ceasefire, like the others, is going to start eroding and as long as fundamental differences are there, the ceasefire is always going to be at risk.”

Kamal Alam, a military analyst and a fellow at the Institute for Statecraft in London, said the coronavirus outbreak had fostered a hiatus in Idlib.

“Syria has been left to fester under its own devices,” he said. “Now we’re in a ‘hold your breath’ moment until hostilities resume, and they will no doubt resume when the attention comes back to Idlib. There could be a spark that sets it off again.

“Once Russia and Syria are in a position to put pressure back on Turkey, they will.”

In Libya, Turkish-backed forces loyal to the government in Tripoli have succeeded in pushing back the eastern-based soldiers augmented by Russian mercenaries.

Mr Khlebnikov said the air strike in Al Bab, which Turkish state-run media said was carried out by Russian jets, “seems to be a message to Turkey that Russia doesn’t like how it acts in Libya”, noting that the two wars were “becoming more entwined”.

Ms Khalifa said the strike “could be a reaction to Turkey escalating in Libya and it could also be a reaction to the attack on the joint patrol on the M4”.

Away from the Middle East, another long-standing conflict was sparked this week as border clashes broke out between Azerbaijan and Armenia, two rivals traditionally backed by Turkey and Russia respectively.

Although the revived hostilities in a conflict that dates back to the break-up of the Soviet Union would seem to be another rupture between Ankara and Moscow, Mr Khlebnikov said it showed how the two countries had “compartmentalised” their relationship.

The latest border shelling “won’t affect the fundamental approach of the countries in Syria”, he said.

One significant difference between earlier Syrian ceasefires and the current deal in Idlib is the presence of up to 15,000 Turkish troops as well as armour, artillery and air defences. Turkey has also set up some 20 observation posts in the region.

Such a force on the ground could act as a deterrent to a renewed Syrian government offensive, Ms Khalifa said.

Ankara has also established economic ties to the areas of northern Syria under its sway, Mr Khlebnikov added. “Turkey de facto occupies the area – it’s becoming more dependent on Turkey, not only security-wise but also economically with many municipalities switching to using the lira instead of the Syrian pound.”

However, Mr Alam said the regime had been bolstered by the four-month break in fighting.

“The ceasefire and coronavirus pandemic has given them respite from a nine-year war,” he said. “They are also gathering more international support and Libya has helped in that it has turned some countries against Turkey.”