Erdogan delays plan to expel Syrian army from Idlib province

Turkish president agrees to reduce tensions in region following consultation with Putin

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s move violates the 2016 deal with Europe to continue hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees upon payment of $6 billion (€5.4 million) for their upkeep. Photograph: Turkish Presidential Press Office/Handout via Reuters

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan has put on hold his plan to expel the Syrian army from north-western Idlib province. Turkey had given the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad until Saturday to withdraw his troops to ceasefire lines agreed in 2018.

After consulting his Russian counterpart and Assad’s’s main ally , Vladimir Putin, Erdogan has agreed to reduce tensions on the ground in Idlib. This is despite continuing clashes between the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes, and jihadi and Turkish client factions.

Erdogan has diverted attention from his climb-down by opening Turkey’s borders to thousands of Syrian refugees and other migrants who are camped in freezing conditions near the Greek and Bulgarian borders and attempt crossing in risky rubber rafts from Turkish shores to nearby Greek islands.

His move violates the 2016 deal with Europe to continue hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees upon payment of $6 billion (€5.4 million) for their upkeep. Erdogan has complained the entire sum has not been delivered but the EU has replied that refugee aid bodies rather than the Turkish state have received part of the money.

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Erdogan issued his ultimatum early last month after the Syrian army attacked a Turkish military convoy entering Syria, killing eight and wounding 12 personnel. Since then 54 Turkish troops have been slain, 34 of them last week in an air strike which Ankara blames on Syrian aircraft although Russian jets were overhead at the time.

Quadrupled troop numbers

Erdogan told Putin not to interfere while Turkey did “what is necessary” about Syrian army advances in Idlib. Putin replied that the Russian air force will not cease operations in coordination with Syrian army offensives as long as “terrorists” are present in Idlib.

He said Turkish troops, deployed to monitor a ceasefire, had been killed only because they have joined jihadi and insurgent attacks on the Syrian army.

Ankara has recently quadrupled troop numbers in Idlib to 15,000, claiming the need to reinforce a dozen fortified bases built with the permission of Moscow to observe a ceasefire and contain al-Qaeda-linked Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and allied jihadi factions. They rule Idlib and strike Syrian army positions and civilian areas in neighbouring provinces.

Russia is impatient with Turkey which has done neither and has, instead, armed jihadis and surrogate insurgents to prevent the Syrian army from wresting Idlib’s cities, towns, villages and countryside from anti-government forces.

Strategic motorways

Russia has proposed revising the 2018 deal with Turkey to establish a “de-confliction” zone encompassing Idlib and adjacent areas by scaling down the area to reflect the latest advances made by the Syrian army. Russia also insists on opening two strategic motorways – the north-south M5 and east-west M4 – which cross Idlib.

Having risked Russia’s regional and global credibility by contributing air, ground and naval assets to the government’s fight to regain the whole of Syria,

Putin is not prepared to accept less.

He also has a whip hand over Erdogan: control of the skies over Idlib. Without air cover, Erdogan dares not launch an all-out offensive against the Syrian army and its allies. The US and Nato – of which Turkey is a member – have offered Erdogan verbal backing, but shun becoming embroiled in the battle for Idlib.