By Arab News
By Menekse Tokyay
The partial transfer of control of the airspace over the de-escalation zone in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib from Moscow to Ankara is being discussed by the two sides, Russian sources said.
The aim is to enable Turkey to conduct an aerial campaign against Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), which Ankara recently designated a terrorist organization.
A former Al-Qaeda affiliate, HTS is the strongest armed group in Idlib, the last stronghold of Syrian anti-government rebels.
In February, HTS claimed responsibility for the downing of a Russian warplane in Idlib using a surface-to-air missile.
Russia, Turkey and Iran are monitoring the de-escalation zone in the province as part of a trilateral agreement.
Turkey has set up observation posts in Idlib in a bid to prevent clashes between rebels and government forces.
“Discussions are ongoing about the details of this transfer (of airspace control). I guess it will be limited to the buffer zone in Idlib for now,” Yury Barmin, an analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, told Arab News.
“If Russia is taking steps to allow Turkey to use Idlib’s airspace, it will give Turkey more room for maneuver in the region.”
But airstrikes by Ankara against HTS might create another refugee influx into Turkey, which already hosts more than 3 million Syrian refugees, Barmin said.
Idlib is home to more than 1 million displaced Syrians, and its population exceeds 3 million. Turkey is concerned that the creation of a humanitarian crisis near its border would further swell its own refugee population.
After a meeting on Sept. 17 between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the two countries agreed to create a de-militarized zone in Idlib by Oct. 15.
The deal requires that all radical groups, including HTS, withdraw from the area and that all heavy weapons be removed.
Russian and Turkish troops will conduct coordinated patrols to ensure that all armed groups respect the deal.
Emre Ersen, a Syria analyst at Marmara University in Istanbul, said a transfer of airspace control would mean that Ankara and Moscow are determined to implement their latest agreement regarding Idlib.
“Until now, Idlib’s airspace has been fully controlled by Russia, which weakened Turkey’s hand in trying to convince rebel groups in the region to abandon their arms,” he told Arab News.
Transferring airspace control “would give Ankara additional diplomatic leverage in its dealings with HTS,” he said.
“If Ankara fails to persuade HTS to comply with the Putin-Erdogan deal regarding Idlib, it’s almost certain that Russia and Syrian government forces will start a military operation in the region.”
So Turkey is sending a message to HTS that if carrots do not work, it has some sticks at its disposal, Ersen said.