A Turkish military convoy entering the town of Sarmada in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib.
The Russian reaction to Turkey’s latest military moves in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib has appeared in the form of a lengthy interview with the government daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta by Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on February 4, which has since been followed by a formal statement by the foreign ministry on Thursday.
Moscow has underscored that the current Syrian operation in Idlib is about vanquishing the al-Qaeda affiliates supported by Turkey and the western countries.
Lavrov dwelt on the backdrop to the so-called Astana format, which resulted from the collapse of the regime change project of “our Western and other foreign partners” in Syria following the Russian intervention in 2015.
He outlined how the Astana process led to the “de-escalation zone” in Idlib where “terrorist groups herded together”. Russia and Turkey reached specific written agreements spelling out their commitments to oversee Idlib. However, to quote Lavrov,
“Regrettably, so far, Turkey has failed to fulfil a couple of its key commitments that were designed to resolve the core of the Idlib problem. It was necessary to separate the armed opposition that cooperates with Turkey and is ready for a dialogue with the government in the political process, from the terrorists of Jabhat al-Nusra, which became Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Both are blacklisted as terrorist groups by the UN Security Council, so neither Jabhat al-Nusra nor the latest version, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, has anything to do in Idlib.”
Even after repeated reminders from Russia, Turkey didn’t act. Equally, Lavrov repeated that the recent Turkish military deployments to Idlib were undertaken without any advance intimation to the Russian side. He said, “We urge them (Turkey) to strictly comply with the 2018 and 2019 Sochi accords on Idlib.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry statement of February 6, as reported by Tass news agency, disclosed that there have been Russian casualties due to the “increasing terrorist activities”. It justified the operations of the Syrian government forces as reaction to “the unacceptable rise in terrorist activities.”
Through the month of December, “over 1,400 militant attacks involving tanks, machine guns, infantry fighting vehicles, mortars and artillery took place.” During the past fortnight alone, “more than 1,000 attacks have been recorded” and hundreds of Syrian troops and civilians have been killed and wounded and the Russian base at Hmeymim came under attack repeatedly.
The foreign ministry statement says, “all this points to an unacceptable increase in terrorist strength in Idlib, where militants have complete impunity and free hands” which left the Syrian government with no alternative but to “react to these developments.”
In a rebuff to Turkish President Recep Erdogan’s demand that the Syrian government should terminate the military operations in Idlib and withdraw, the Russian statement said, “A thing to note is that the Syrian army is fighting on its own soil against those designated as terrorists by the UN Security Council. There can be no interpretations. It is the Syrian government’s right and responsibility to combat terrorists in the country.”
Curiously, both Lavrov’s interview as well as the Foreign Ministry statement drew attention to the transfer of terror groups from Idlib to northeastern Syria and from there to Libya in the recent weeks. The implication is clear — Ankara continues to deploy terrorist groups as tools of regional strategies in Syria (and Libya).
Russia has contacts with all parties in Libya, including Khalifa Haftar. The implicit warning here is that Erdogan will have a high price to pay in Libya where he cannot count on Russian empathy. Turkey is already under withering criticism from EU, France, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Israel, UAE and Saudi Arabia for its military intervention in Libya, especially by deploying its proxy groups from Syria. Turkey’s regional isolation over Libya is now complete.
The Russian Foreign Ministry statement concluded saying, “We reaffirm our commitment to the agreements reached at the Astana talks, which envisage fighting terrorist groups in Syria on the condition of respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. We will maintain close coordination with our Turkish and Iranian partners for the sake of achieving lasting stability and security on the ground.”
It is highly significant that the Foreign Ministry statement singled out the “Iranian partners” for reference. On February 5, while receiving the new Iranian ambassador to Moscow, President Putin also said Russia and Iran were “key powerful players” in the fight against global terrorism and will continue their cooperation. Putin added, “(Russia’s) cooperation with Iran within the Astana framework has played an effective role in the settlement of the Syria conflict.”
What emerges is that Moscow senses that behind Turkish president Erdogan’s mercurial behaviour, there is the old pattern of Turkey using terror groups as proxies, with covert support from western powers. Moscow cannot but be aware that the US is making overtures to Erdogan with a view to shift the military balance against Russia and Iran on the Syrian-Iraqi chessboard in the downstream of the killing of General Qassem Soleimani.
Curiously, on Monday, a US appeals court agreed to “pause” a case alleging that Turkey’s state-owned HalkBank evaded US sanctions on Iran. The US Senate Finance Committee member Ron Wyden, a Democrat, has since addressed a letter to the US Attorney General William Barr asking if President Trump had tried to intervene on behalf of Halkbank!
A Reuters report said Senator Wyden asked Barr to detail his interactions with Trump, President Tayyip Erdogan and Turkish Finance Minister Berat Albayrak (who is also Erdogan’s son-in-law).
The HalkBank scandal implicates Erdogan and family members and an adverse court verdict can be highly damaging politically to the president and his son-in-law who is groomed as a potential successor. (A commentary on the scandal featured in the Foundation for Defense of Democracies authored by a former Turkish member of parliament is here.) The HalkBank case hangs like the sword of Damocles over Erdogan. Washington is adept at using such pressure tactics against recalcitrant interlocutors abroad.
On the other hand, if Trump has done a favour to Erdogan (or anyone for that matter), he’d expect a quid pro quo. And it is to be expected that the Trump administration would visualise that Erdogan’s cooperation can be a game changer in the geopolitics of Syria and Iraq. However, Moscow has kept the line open to Ankara.
To be sure, it is with deliberation that Moscow has highlighted the salience of the Russian-Iranian alliance in Syria where Washington is escalating tensions lately as part of its “maximum pressure” approach threatening Tehran with a region-wide war.