Risk of Russia-Turkey clash in Syria’s Idlib still serious, columnist says

There is an increased risk of Turkey and Russia clashing in Syria’s last rebel-held province of Idlib, Hürriyet columnist Sedat Ergin wrote on Wednesday.

Fighting between Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and Russian-backed Syrian government forces is at full tilt, while a delegation from Moscow is set to arrive in Ankara and both sides re-assert their positions on Idlib, Ergin wrote. 

Two previous rounds of discussion in Ankara and Moscow have failed to yield results, straining ties between the two countries, which back opposing sides in Syria's conflict.

“The Russian side has effectively said that it will not accept a ceasefire that includes the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), signalling a strong stance on the continuation of military operations,” Ergin wrote.

The Syrian National Army (SNA), the Turkish-backed umbrella organisation of rebel groups previously known as the Free Syrian Army, is cooperating with the Al-Qaeda-linked HTS in battling against forces loyal to Damascus in Idlib.

Ankara, for its part, is remaining firm in its call for Damascus to withdraw to behind the borders of the 2018 Sochi agreement, the Hürriyet columnist said. 

The 2018 deal aimed at establishing a demilitarised zone in Idlib, separating government forces from the armed opposition and jihadist groups in the province.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on Wednesday said Turkey would push Syrian government forces away from its military observation posts in Idlib if they did not withdraw by the end of February. Syrian government shelling has killed 17 Turkish troops this month.

Kremlin Spokesman Dmitry Peskov, when asked about a meeting on the region between Erdoğan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, said Moscow was considering a multilateral format, suggesting the participation of Iran, Ergin said.

“From this statement it is understood that Russia wants to discuss the latest developments in Idlib within the framework of Astana, in other words, by facing Turkey with Iran by its side,” Ergin wrote.

Negotiations are on knife’s edge, the columnist said.