The Erdoğan-Putin summit is over but the debates on it are not - is the U.S. unhappy with the Idlib ceasefire?
An important bilateral summit was held on March 5 in Moscow between Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian president Vladimir Putin. The outcome is still the subject of lively debate both in Turkey and abroad, because the consequences of the meeting remain open to interpretation, such as whether the United States is unhappy with the Iblib ceasefire.
Kemal Kılıçdaroğlu, the leader of Turkey’s main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), insists that this is not a ceasefire, because the agreement does not mention the word “ceasefire” in any part of the text and that it only says “all military activities will be brought to a halt”.
Leaving aside the semantic question of whether this is a ceasefire in due form, the fact that the military clashes are suspended has to be welcomed by all stakeholders, because it will save further losses of life and prevent further destruction of the infrastructure.
Both Turkey and Russia have something to be proud of with the agreement.
Turkey has destroyed several Syrian government targets and inflicted losses of life on the Syrian army. Putin may have moved aside while Turkey was carrying out these operations, probably to demonstrate to Syrian President Bashar Assad that Turkey has the means to inflict damage on Syria should Russia not intervene.
The area controlled by the Turkish army may have diminished after the ‘cessation of hostilities’, but Turkey has amassed a strong military presence in Idlib, roughly with the strength of a a mechanised division. These attacks and military concentration may have persuaded the Syrian government to become more amenable to a cessation of clashes.
Despite these gains, Turkey had to adjust its narrative to the reality in the field. After Turkey suffered the loss of 33 soldiers, Erdoğan threatened Syria that if the Syrian forces did not withdraw from places that it occupied after the Astana/Sochi agreement of September 2018, the Turkish army would repel it from these places. The Syrian army did not withdraw and Turkey had to tacitly admit that the areas seized by the Syrian army would remain under Assad’s control.
Given the circumstances, this is a fair compromise and Syria is the biggest winner because its people will suffer less and its country will be destroyed less.
Glancing at the future, the agreement promises hope, but also poses risks.
The hopes are that, after each side tested its capabilities and limitations, they may have come to the conclusion that further clashes are futile and the time for a negotiated solution has now come. The relative calm obtained with the Moscow agreement has to be built upon and transition to the constitutional process has to be accelerated.
One of the risks is that another major player, the United States, seems to be unhappy with the ceasefire and is inciting Turkey to continue its military operations in Idlib.
Another risk is that, despite the conciliatory narrative used by Putin and Erdoğan, their priorities are different: Putin said that they would continue to fight the groups that are considered terrorist by the United Nations. He was referring to the definition made by the U.N. Security Council resolution 2254. This resolution invites the member countries “to fight individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with ISIS, Al-Nusra Front, al Qaeda and other terrorist groups as designated by the Security Council” and reiterates that the ceasefire agreed in Syria on Nov. 14, 2015 would not “apply to offensive and defensive actions against these individuals, groups, undertakings and entities.”
Erdoğan, in turn, specifically underlined after the Moscow summit that Turkey reserved the right to retaliate against all sorts of aggression by the Syrian government.
The contradiction here is that Russia and the Syrian government are determined to eliminate the armed opposition in Idlib, but there are among them groups that are protected by Turkey and that fought in the past in the ranks of the Al-Nusra Front. Therefore, they are legitimate targets according to the UN definition. Turkey is, on the one hand legally bound by the Security Council resolution 2254, which says that the ceasefire does cover the enumerated terrorist groups, while on the other, Turkey protects some of them.
The risk is therefore what would happen if Turkey continues to support the terrorist groups that it has once protected.