Russian move to address Turkish security concerns reflects efforts to gain concession in Idlib but deadlock over area will continue in next six months
Turkey’s support for rebels in Idlib means it will not accept conditions attached to proposed revival of historic agreement between Ankara and Damascus
Jihadist group Tahrir al-Sham’s (TaS) limited cooperation with Ankara means Turkish response to Syrian-led air strikes against TaS inside Idlib will remain muted
President Assad said on 26 January he was willing to revive a 1998 accord between Syria and Turkey, which committed Damascus to crack down on the militant Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Syria, as long as Ankara withdrew its troops from the country. The agreement, known as the Adana Accord, has not been implemented since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011. The statement came three days after Russian President Putin first proposed a revival of the agreement during a meeting with Turkish President Erdogan.
Putin’s meeting with Erdogan comes amid ongoing Turkish efforts to gain US backing for Ankara’s plan to establish a 20 km buffer zone along its border with Syria. This reflects Turkish concerns that the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, which control this territory, could provide cross-border assistance to the PKK, which Ankara considers a terrorist organisation, increasing the risk of violence in Turkey. Putin therefore likely calculated that invoking the Accord would reassure Ankara that Moscow is working to address its security concerns.
The reference to the Accord also suggests that Russia hopes its efforts to address Turkish concerns over the Kurdish presence along its border will help ensure that Ankara uses its influence over rebel opposition forces in Idlib to gain concessions. For instance, Moscow may hope that Turkey will help persuade rebels to eventually surrender and accept Assad’s terms in political transition talks. However, rebel groups are unlikely to agree to such concessions, not least because Idlib is their last major stronghold, and so they will seek to deny Assad taking control of it. Turkey remains strongly supportive of the rebels, partly because it hopes that the stabilisation of Idlib under rebel forces will allow some of the 2.6 million Syrian refugees in Turkey to return. Erdogan will therefore not accept Assad’s condition and withdraw from Syria. As a result, a revival of the Accord is highly unlikely.
Nonetheless, Ankara understands that Russian support for the Russo-Turkish sponsored de-escalation zone in Idlib remains conditioned on Turkey’s ability to limit the influence of jihadist groups in the area. Indeed, this likely explains why Ankara in January called for the jihadist group Tahrir al-Sham (TaS), which controls a significant portion of Idlib, to merge with the main opposition umbrella. That said, Turkey’s influence over this increasingly fractioned group remains limited, and TaS is divided over the extent of its cooperation with Ankara. Indeed, a senior TaS cleric reportedly defected on 2 February over his opposition to Turkey’s plan, suggesting that the group’s leadership may refrain from accepting the proposal for now to avoid further defections. The groups limited cooperation with Ankara means Erdogan’s response to any Syrian-led air strikes against TaS inside Idlib will remain muted, and spikes in violence against TaS positions from pro-Assad forces will continue.
Any incursions by Syrian forces could lead to limited territorial advances by the Government. However, significant changes to the situation in Idlib remain unlikely for now. This is because ongoing uncertainty over the implementation of US President Trump’s plans to withdraw US troops from Syria will likely delay any resolution on the future of Kurdish troops along the Turkish border. Ankara, meanwhile, considers the continued presence of rebel forces in Idlib as important leverage in negotiations to end the Syrian conflict, particularly relating to the presence of Kurdish forces in the North. As a result, deadlock over Idlib will persist at least in the next six months.