Putin's Idlib Game, 2 Losers and A Winner

Amidst the fierce battle between Turkish and Syrian government forces in Syria’s Idlib province, the Turkish and Russian presidents; Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin met on March 5 in Moscow to discuss a ceasefire deal.

Crux of the Matter

The tussle between Turkey and allied Syrian rebels and Russian-backed Syrian government forces could not be brought to end even after all possible diplomacy efforts.

According to the Syrian civil defense group, Russian airstrikes in Idlib have claimed 16 civilian lives and the Turkish Defence Ministry reported that 184 Syrian government force members were killed in the last 24 hours. Turkey said it has destroyed 3 Syrian planes and has destroyed hundreds of vehicles and equipment killing more than 3,000 soldiers since the operation was launched on February 27. United Nations has called this the worst humanitarian crisis as one million people have fled fighting in Idlib after the Syrian government launched a military assault.

In the past week, Russia-backed Syrian army launched an air attack that killed 33 opponent soldiers; Turkey retaliated with a military operation. The meeting of 2 leaders in Moscow is more crucial as it is a ground for recovering a deteriorating relationship between two economic partners. Before the meet, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he expects to achieve a ceasefire after the talks with Vladimir Putin. Russia will try and maintain its balance between sparing Turkey and supporting Syria in the meet.

Putin had first turned down the meeting with Erdogan in January 2020. In February, Turkey had announced a four-way meeting on March 5 with France’s Emmanuel Macron, Germany’s Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin but after 5 days of the announcement, Moscow stated that Putin had ‘other plans’ for March 5. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has hoped that some new agreements will be found in the Sochi framework after this meeting.

The 2018 Sochi Agreement
A ‘de-escalation zone’ with 12 observation towers around Idlib was created which did not prove to be much effective and it did not make any progress over the years. The Russian military accused Turkey of violating international law by sending troops into Idlib to make up a mechanized division. Turkey accused Russia of breaching the ceasefire agreed in 2018 numerous times.

If a solution is not reached at this point the Syrian crisis would get complicated and also harm the economic projects which Russia has invested in Turkey and undertaken projects which include defense system deals and building the Akkuyu Nuclear Plant. Russia may leverage these to pressurize Turkey to negotiate.

Putin just before the meeting, expressed his regret to President Erdogan for loss of 34 Turkish troops in an airstrike, saying the Syrian army had not known of their location. Ahead of the Moscow talks, Idlib residents have reported heavy shelling by Turkish troops and airstrikes by Russian and Syrian forces.

Though Russia has denied targeting civilians, Turkey’s Anadolu news agency reported that the strikes hit civilians.

Syria and its Refugee Crisis
Turkey hosts nearly 3.6 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot absorb more. To extract more funding from Europe, Turkey says it would not abide by the 2016 deal in which it stopped migrants crossing into the European Union in return for billions of euros in aid.

The Turkish President in a warning to Europe said, “Europe must support Turkey’s political and humanitarian solutions in Syria if it wants to avoid a repeat of the 2015 migration crisis.” Thousands of migrants have gathered at the Turkish-Greek border since President Erdogan asked them to try to enter Europe which has lead to clashes with Greek police.

James Jeffrey, the U.S. special representative said, “while the United States supports Turkey, it still has very serious concerns over Ankara’s purchase of Russian S-400 missile defenses last year.”

International Affairs Expert Fyodor Lukyanov said, “Both sides are not linked by mutual interests or trust, but by the impossibility to achieve their goals without the other party’s cooperation.”


Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is the 12th and current president of the Republic of Turkey. He previously served as Prime Minister of Turkey from 2003 to 2014 and as Mayor of Istanbul from 1994 to 1998. In 1976, Erdoğan engaged in politics by joining the National Turkish Student Union, an anti-communist action group. In the same year, he became the head of the Beyoğlu youth branch of the Islamist National Salvation Party and was later promoted to chair of the Istanbul youth branch of the party. In 1983, Erdoğan followed most of Necmettin Erbakan’s followers into the Islamist Welfare Party. He became the party’s Beyoğlu district chair in 1984, and in 1985 he became the chair of the Istanbul city branch. More Info

The Idlib Demilitarization was an agreement between Turkey and Russia to create a demilitarized zone (DMZ) in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib Governorate, to be patrolled by military forces from Russia and Turkey. On 17 September 2018, the Russian president Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan reached an agreement to create a buffer zone in Idlib. After the deal, on 19 September, the Syrian military attacked positions held by HTS and its allies, in the Hama-Latakia-Idlib axis, stating that it has still not withdrawn its troops from the area. The deal’s terms were never implemented fully. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) never left the demilitarized zone and, to the contrary, launched a full-scale offensive against the other rebel groups remaining within the rebel-held Idlib Governorate. More Info