Ankara and Damascus appear to be heading towards a military confrontation as Russia, the main backer of the Assad regime, fails to stick to its word on Idlib.
Following intense talks in Moscow on Tuesday, Turkish and Russian delegations failed to reach any consensus over the Assad regime’s ongoing offensive in the Idlib province, the last opposition stronghold.
The regime offensive has already killed hundreds of civilians, forcing more than 900,000 people to flee from their homes to slightly safer areas next to the Turkish border.
The regime also attacked Turkish observation posts, which were set up in accordance to a tripartite agreement between Ankara, Moscow and Tehran, to protect civilians in Idlib. The previous negotiations under the Astana peace process initially led to some degree of calm but since the Assad regime reneged on it, tensions have escalated in the region.
"We are entering the last days for the [Syrian] regime to stop its hostility in Idlib. We are making our final warnings. Unfortunately, we have not yet reached the desired results in talks held in our country, in Russia and in the field," said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a speech on Wednesday.
"Even though the talks will continue, it is true that we are far from meeting our demands at the table,” Erdogan
"There was no satisfactory outcome for Turkey from the meetings with Russia over Syria's Idlib. We rejected the paper and map offered to us," said Ibrahim Kalin, the presidential spokesman of Turkey.
Apparently, Russians have offered Turkey a strip of land close to the border to create a safe zone in order to relocate millions of potential internally displaced people in Idlib. Ankara rejected the offer straight out, seeing it as a definite violation of the 2018 de-confliction zone agreement between Ankara and Moscow.
What comes next in Idlib?
Using specific language, which usually heralds another military operation in northern Syria, Erdogan has signalled that Turkey will not allow the regime takeover of Idlib.
“Turkey has made every preparation to carry out its own operational plans. Like every operation we carried out, I say that we can imminently come at any point one night," Erdogan said.
When he deploys militarily tough rhetoric, which mirrors Ankara's political language that has been in use since the Cyprus operation of 1974, it often means the countdown has begun.
"In other words, the Idlib offensive is only a matter of time. We will not leave Idlib to the [Syrian] regime, which does not understand our country's determination, and to those encouraging it," Erdogan said, referring to Russians.
Some regional analysts believe Western pundits and officials, along with their Russian counterparts, are taking Erdogan's words lightly, miscalculating them as a mere bargaining skill, which they might regret in the near future.
“The Kremlin thinks that Turkey is bluffing,” said Omer Ozkizilcik, a political analyst working for the SETA Foundation, an Ankara-based research centre.
“It’s not a bluff,” Ozkizilcik said.
But Russians have other ideas about the possible upcoming Turkish operation.
"If it is about military operations against terrorist groups in Idlib, it would be in line with Sochi agreements. Neutralisation of those terrorist groups, who currently possess powerful infrastructure, weaponry, hardware and ammunition is a duty of the Turkish side," said Dmitry Peskov, the spokesman of the Russian defence ministry.
"If it is about operations against legitimate Syrian authorities and Syrian army, it would be the worst-case scenario," Peskov said.
But that worst-case scenario, among others, might be unfolding in Idlib as hundreds of thousands of people are decisively moving toward the Turkish border, choosing not to live under regime rule no matter what happens.
Turkey already hosts nearly four million refugees from the war-torn country. Another three million, most of whom were forced to flee Idlib from other regions of the country under the regime's control, are living in the last opposition bastion.
It means in total one-third of the country’s population has no desire to live under the Assad regime, choosing potentially freezing to death or to living in muddy refugee camps. On the other hand, one-third of the country is under the US-backed YPG/PKK terror group's rule, which is laying down across northeastern Syria.
A possible Turkish operation over Idlib could aim to join the provincial territories with other Turkish-run regions in northern Syria, ensuring a political space where people opposed to the Assad rule could rebuild their lives and gain a sense of normalcy after a nine-year civil war.
A Syrian breakup?
Turkey is defending Syrian territorial integrity and put effort for it in Astana peace talks.
But in the case of a Syrian breakup, it’s not clear how Turkey would react in terms of its controlled territories in northern Syria, which covers some parts of the ‘Aleppo Vilayet’ from the Ottoman period.
During the Turkish Independence War following World War I, nationalist forces led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk declared a National Pact (Misak-i Milli), which covered current Turkish territories, the Ottoman Aleppo Vilayet and Ottoman Mosul Vilayet, which corresponds to present-day northern Iraq.
According to the pact, Turkey claimed sovereignty over those territories in northern Syria and Iraq.
But in 1921, at the request of the French government, Turkey signed the Ankara Treaty, ceding some parts of the Aleppo Vilayet to Paris, which had a mandate over Syria following WWI.
However, Ankara was able to recover the Iskenderun Sancak, the port district of the Aleppo Vilayet, through intense negotiations with France and other European powers in 1939, just before World War II, making it a part of Turkey and turning the Sancak into its Hatay Vilayet, which borders Syria’s Idlib Province.