In turn, Erdogan’s statements that Turkey will begin military operations against the Syrian armed forces in Idlib, if they do not leave the de-escalation zone before the end of February, should be considered not so much as an ultimatum, but as a designation of a time frame for working out a new agreement, that is, Damascus may continue military operations until March 1 where it will not meet with direct opposition from Turkish troops. For example, proceed to unblock the M4 highway, which connects Aleppo and Latakia, where the Turkish troops seem to have intentionally left a “window”. After this, another freezing situation may follow.
But any new agreement on Idlib will turn out to be just as temporary and fragile and will rely on the long-standing 2018 memorandum, on which both sides insist on principles. Turkey will not reject the demand for the withdrawal of Assad forces from the de-escalation zone. Ankara would like to keep Idlib as a buffer between the territories controlled by Damascus and Turkey. The province now has up to 4 million refugees from other parts of Syria. If the Assad regime completely occupies Idlib, most of them will be in Turkey.
Moreover, Russia, given the pressure on it, Assad is unlikely to agree to create a Turkish “security zone” in Idlib, albeit informal. But experts, including Turkish ones, have doubts about the ability of the Turkish forces deployed in Idlib to provide effective resistance to the offensive of the Syrian army. So far, their appearance is only a show of strength.
The moment of truth can be an attempt by Assad’s forces to launch an attack on the cities of Idlib and Taftanaz, where the concentration of Turkish troops is greatest. If the Syrian army can “squeeze” between Turkish positions without real resistance, then the offensive will continue until the border itself, and the bases of Turkish troops will be blocked. Such a scenario, however, will be a serious defeat for Erdogan, especially in the face of his electorate.
If Assad’s offensive paths are blocked by Turkish troops and the Syrian regime is forced to stop the operation, the separation of spheres of influence in Idlib will become a fait accompli and will pass along the line of contact between the Syrian and Turkish armies. The new reality can be consolidated in the next agreement between Moscow and Ankara.
In any case, it all depends on Turkey’s readiness for action, not just statements. The scenario of a direct clash between the Turkish and Syrian armies seems unlikely and too risky, since there is a threat of a military conflict between Moscow and Ankara.
Another scenario involves the opening of a “second front,” for example, in the Syrian northeast, where Turkish troops and their Syrian allies could launch an offensive and compensate for the territorial losses in Idlib by acquisitions beyond the Euphrates. However, in this case, it will be necessary to obtain approval from the United States, and this is not so simple in the current state of Turkish-American relations.
So far, Moscow and Ankara are not aimed at breaking off relations and are trying to solve the “Idlib equation.” Opportunities for compromise remain. Even Turkey’s harsh demands for the withdrawal of all regime forces from the de-escalation zone, upon closer examination, do not require the opposition to return to these areas. That is, Turkey may come to terms with the fact that the territories taken by Assad in Idlib will be transferred, for example, under the control of the Russian military police and units consisting of “reconciled” fighters Syrian opposition.