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Erdogan faces the dilemma of saving face in Syria

UNITED STATES (OBSERVATORY NEWS) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan faces a difficult dilemma to avoid becoming a major loser in the Idlib battle, as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime continues his military campaign unabated, while displaced people gather at the Turkish border in what appears to have been abandoned by his Russian ally.

About 17 Turkish soldiers were killed this month by the Syrian regime forces in Idlib governorate, northwestern Syria, while several Turkish observation points were besieged in areas that the regime forces had recovered after Ankara believed it was safe under its agreements with Russia, Damascus’ most prominent ally.

In an effort to prevent Assad’s victory and avoid the flow of more refugees who are gathering at his country’s border crossings, Erdogan has threatened to launch an operation against Damascus forces unless they withdraw by the end of February.

But on the back of the tense relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, following differences over Syria, any potential military operation against the regime runs the risk of sparking a confrontation with Moscow, which is not an issue for Erdogan.

Erdogan and his Russian counterpart – the two main international players in the Syrian conflict – signed an agreement in Sochi in 2018 to establish a “demilitarized zone” that separates the Syrian regime forces from those of armed opposition factions and jihadi groups in Idlib governorate.

But the deal collapsed weeks ago, while Ankara and Moscow accused each other of failing it.

– “Direct confrontation” –

“If the Assad regime fails to retreat to the previous lines at the end of the month, and if Turkey and Russia fail to reach an agreement, there is a great chance that we will witness a direct confrontation between Turkey and the Assad regime,” Ankara political analyst Ali Bakir told AFP.

He added that “the problem for Turkey is not the Syrian regime, but the Russians.”

Turkey has so far received 3.6 million Syrian refugees and confirmed that it is not ready to open its borders to a new wave of people fleeing Idlib.

With the growing restlessness of Syrians in Turkey, officials plan to reduce the burden by returning some of them to the areas currently controlled by the Turkish army in the wake of three operations carried out by Ankara since 2016.

“The new wave of arriving refugees will represent the worst possible scenario for Turkey, not entering a direct confrontation with the Assad regime,” Bakir said.

If Turkey and Russia fail to revive the Sochi Agreement, Erdogan’s options are limited.

“One of the possible scenarios for Turkey is to establish a safe area in what remains of Idlib, and this region will not have any agreements with Russia or the Assad regime,” Bakir said.

Such an area would allow Turkey to accommodate people who have been internally displaced to escape the fighting on Syrian soil.

– “very resentful” –

In turn, the researcher at “Chatham House”, Hayd Hayd, told France Presse that “Erdogan realizes the extreme resentment in Turkey towards the Syrian refugees.”

“Therefore, (Ankara) conceives its military operations in Idlib as a way to prevent more refugees from crossing. The (political) price will be higher for him if many soldiers lose in Syria and nevertheless fail to prevent the refugees from crossing into Turkey.”

“But he may be able to gain from the crisis if the result of his intervention is positive.”

Hayd also believes that Turkey launching an operation against the Syrian regime forces is “still possible” if it becomes evident that political negotiations between Ankara and Moscow are futile.

He added, “Allowing Assad to control Idlib will not only harm Erdogan internally, but rather harm Turkey’s reputation and ability to impose its authority.”

For Haid, a confrontation of this nature will not necessarily mean the end of the Turkish-Russian alliance, given the strengthened relations between the two countries in recent years, especially in the fields of energy and defense.

He said, “The current alliance between Turkey and Russia goes beyond Syria.”

“That is why neither of them, at least for the time being, does not want to undermine it. Idlib is important for Turkey, but it is not the crucial issue in the relationship between the two sides.”

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