Ticking time bomb in Syria’s Idlib as Russia-Turkey deal frays - Financial Times

Russia is rapidly running out of patience with Turkey in Syria’s Idlib province, bringing ever closer the humanitarian crisis that would likely result from an all-out Syrian assault, British newspaper the Financial Times reported on Wednesday.

After eight years of war, Idlib, in northwest Syria, is the last bastion of opposition to President Bashar Assad. “It is also the site of a geopolitical showdown — stretching from Ankara to Moscow and Tehran and pulling in Washington — between powerful foreign militaries with opposing ambitions,” said FT.

Last September, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan struck a deal to avoid a Syrian massacre. Russia agreed to halt a planned assault on Idlib by Syrian forces, while Turkey promised to remove the extremists, who had vowed to make Idlib their last stand, from the area bordering regime-held territory.

According to FT, what would happen in Idlib would determine the fate of what it said a “marriage of convenience” between Moscow and Ankara, divided over their position to Assad, who “has muddled its way through the war, but is now stretched to breaking point.”

“That deal is now in tatters,” said FT, citing a meeting in Sochi last month between the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran. “In Sochi, Mr Putin berated his Turkish counterpart for not only failing to clear out the militants, but allowing them to grow in number and influence.”

In January, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a Sunni extremist faction which grew out of al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra, emerged as the dominant force in Idlib.  

“HTS has harnessed Idlib’s economy, extracting tolls and fees on border crossings and controlling traffic between Idlib and Turkey. It has imposed its own interpretation of Islamic law and been accused of imprisoning and torturing its opponents,” said FT.

Moscow blames Turkey, and says HTS is using Idlib as a base to launch attacks against its forces. But Şaban Kardaş, a professor of international relations in Ankara, says the task of controlling the group is “mission impossible” for Ankara.

The rise of HTS in Idlib has given Moscow and Damascus a strong pretext for an assault, even as the U.N. warns that such an assault could trigger this century’s worst humanitarian crisis, as the province is home to an estimated 3 million people, around half of whom relocated there from other parts of Syria.

“We are getting impatient," a senior Russian official told FT. "On one hand we don’t want to jeopardise our partnership. But on the other we don’t want Turkey to jeopardise it through their inaction.”

Erdoğan is already facing strong public discontent at home over the presence of 3.6 million Syrian refugees, according to FT. Opening the gates to more could fuel social unrest.

“Turkey is desperate to avoid a military onslaught that could drive hundreds of thousands of refugees towards its border. Yet Russia wants the extremists eliminated and the war brought to an end,” said FT.

The prospect of Russia running out of patience and bowing to the Syrian army’s demand for a full-on assault terrifies the millions of people trapped in Idlib.

“It is not that we still have a problem in Idlib,” said the Russian official. “It is that the problem in Idlib is growing day by day...There is a certain limit of patience. [Mr Putin] is thinking about that every day. It is a big problem.”