The Idlib Challenge and the Sochi Summit

September 18, 2018

On September 17, 2018, Presidents Putin and Erdoğan met in Sochi. On top of their agenda was Idlib. This is what President Putin said at the joint press conference following the talks:

“We reviewed the situation in detail and decided to establish by October 15 a demilitarized area 15–20 km. deep along the contact line between the armed opposition and government troops, with radical militants to be withdrawn from the area, including al-Nusra. Also, by October 10, based on the Turkish President’s proposal, to secure the withdrawal of heavy military equipment, tanks, multiple rocket launchers, cannon and mortars of all opposition groups. Turkish mobile patrol groups and Russian military police units will conduct the monitoring of the demilitarized zone. Also, to restore transit along the Aleppo-Latakia and Aleppo-Hama routes before the end of 2018, also at the suggestion of the Turkish side…” (*)

President Putin’s using the word “also” three times in his description of the deal gives the impression that what was agreed upon in Sochi essentially reflects Ankara’s approach to the problem. The International Crisis Group said in a statement today that it welcomes the announcement which would appear to prevent a new deadly round of conflict with tremendous human cost. It added that implementing the agreement will be difficult, and its collapse cannot be ruled out. Turkey seems as if it may have to shoulder the heavy burden of partially disarming rebels inside the zone and emptying it of jihadists, a step those militants seem inclined to resist (**).

On the surface, the world seems to be united in preventing a humanitarian disaster with an extremely high civilian death toll, destruction, human suffering and grief. Yet, one only has to look at the past eight years of the Syrian war, what is going on in Yemen and Libya to see that this is far from being the case.

Russia, the principal actor in Syria, has changed the course of the war. Having criticized the U.S. for its failed external interventions it seems anxious to prove its peace-making capacity as an investment in Russia’s global standing. It does not wish a massacre in Idlib to cast a dark shadow over Syria’s political transition moving forward preferably through the Astana process. And, Russia no doubt has a strategic interest in Ankara’s moving further away from Washington. However, and this is a big “however”, its patience with Idlib has its limits. Moscow will not allow Idlib to turn into a frozen confrontation because at some point it would like to say, “mission accomplished”, one way or the other.

Turkey’s political leadership must have realized by now, hopefully, that their foray into the Syrian conflict has proved to be a foreign and security policy disaster. With 3.5 million refugees in Turkey already, it wishes to stem a new wave which is likely to include thousands of terrorists. Actually, Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (JDP) welcomed the refugees, even invited more in the misguided belief that the Syrian regime would soon collapse and they would all go back eternally grateful to their Turkish hosts. Unfortunately, exactly the opposite happened and another influx may prove to be the straw that broke the camel’s back, particularly in view of Turkey’s current economic difficulties.

Europe as well worries about the likelihood of this happening. Because, a new wave of refugees will be sure to arrive at its shores further serving the interests of Europe’s far right. Since some European countries also engaged in regime change games in Syria in the beginning, this a price they have to pay. Sharing a 910 km. border with Syria Turkey inevitably pays a higher price. While it is understandable that Europe wishes to see the Syrian conflict resolved or at least contained, repeated threats of force against the regime linked to use of chemical weapons do not serve European interests. At a press stakeout on August 30, UN’s Syria Envoy Staffan di Mistura said, “We all are aware that both the government and al-Nusra have the capability to produce weaponized chlorine, that’s the one people are talking about, not sarin.” So, whatever influence they have in the region, Europeans should use it to bolster the country’s political transition.

As for Washington, its principal objectives seem to be firstly preventing Russia’s writing a success story and secondly maintaining a foothold in Syria despite President Trump’s earlier statements favoring withdrawal. America’s long-term plans for Syria are likely to become clearer if and when the political process is energized. That will also define, to a large measure, the future of Washington’s relations with Ankara.

Whether what is announced in Sochi is the end of the story or represents the initial phase of a not so rigorously fixed timetable remains to be seen. What is clear is that Turkey’s and Russia’s timeframes for the resolution of the Idlib problem are largely different with the former looking probably at an open-ended process while the latter has a shorter span of patience.

At the joint press conference in Sochi President Putin said, “Russia and Turkey have reaffirmed their commitment to fight terrorism in Syria in all its forms and guises. It is our common opinion that practical efforts to fulfill the planned steps will give an added boost to the political settlement process in Syria, step up work on the Geneva platform and contribute to the return of peace to Syrian soil.”

Nonetheless, the following questions remain:

  • Are Russia, Iran and the Assad regime determined to eliminate the militants no matter what?
  • If, in theory, the “militants” were to leave Idlib, where would they go?
  • What if they head towards Afrin, moving even closer to the Turkish border?
  • And above everything else, is there any hope of separating the “healthy opposition” from the “terrorists”?

Mr. Putin also said that what was agreed in Sochi is generally supported by the leadership of the Syrian Arab Republic.  He added, “We will soon hold additional consultations with the Syrian government…”

What he meant by “we” remains to be seen.

………………………………………………………………………………………………….

(*) http://en.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/58574

(**) https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/eastern-mediterranean/syria/syrias-idlib-wins-welcome-reprieve-russia-turkey-deal?

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