Yaşar Yakış
Sep 13 2018

Turkey cornering itself in Idlib

During a trilateral summit between Turkey, Russia and Iran in Tehran on Sept. 7, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a courageous attempt to appeal to his partners to launch a ceasefire in the rebel-held northwest Syrian province of Idlib.

He may have wished to score points among the Syrian opposition factions that Turkey considers moderate and use this proposal to tell them that he had done his best and that now it would be their turn to take a step in the direction of conciliation and lay down arms.

This is one way of doing things, but there were other ways of doing it. One of them was to use more silent diplomacy. This proposal could be raised in technical level meetings and inform the other participants that, if the proposal were not accepted at that level, the Turkish president would raise it in the summit. We do not know whether this was done.

There was a tradition in the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs to brief the head of the delegation before any international meeting and explain to him what had happened at the lower level meetings, the respective positions of the other delegations and what are the risks of insisting on one’s position. If this tradition is still maintained, the risks and advantages of appealing for a ceasefire must have been assessed in the pre-summit preparatory meeting.

If Erdoğan’s staff had not informed him that the Russian President Vladimir Putin might oppose his proposal, this would be a grave mistake. Erdoğan is a leader who likes to take risks. Therefore, he may have decided deliberately to make such a last ditch effort, despite the opposite suggestion of his advisors. Because of his strong leadership skills, he may still sell this attitude as a success to vast segments of Turkey’s domestic audience.

But there is the other side of the coin. The international media perceived Erdoğan’s proposal as a minus for Turkey.

Putin said in his introductory speech in the summit that the air raids carried out by Russian jets were a response to drone attacks against the Russian Hmeimin air base, south of Latakia. So the attacks on terrorist targets in Idlib was presented by Russia as self-defence.

Furthermore, once you declare a ceasefire, you will be barred from attacking terrorist targets while the UN Security Council resolution 2254 distinguished the moderate Syrian opposition from Islamic State and al Qaeda-linked organisations. It not only excluded them from the scope of the ceasefire, but explicitly invited the international community to fight them. Therefore, the international community, including Turkey, had a contractual obligation under the international law to fight them. Turkey has an additional obligation stemming from the Astana Memorandum of May 4, 2017, on de-escalation zones, which reconfirmed the obligations contained in the UN Resolution 2254.  

Putin also opposed Erdoğan’s proposal for a ceasefire on the grounds that the rebels who had to commit themselves to a ceasefire were not present in Tehran. Putin brought further clarifications to his approach, in the press conference after the adoption of the joint communiqué, by saying: “It is unacceptable to use civilians as a pretext to shield terrorists”.

Putin’s words are so unequivocal that nobody could draw any conclusion other than Turkey was being accused of protecting terrorists in Idlib.   

Another detail that may not have been brought to Erdogan’s attention by his advisors is the comparison between Turkey’s attitude to the regime’s armed opposition in Idlib and its attitude to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK is listed as a terrorist organisation in EU countries and the United States. Of course Turkey cannot be compared to President Bashar Assad’s Syria. It is not using disproportioned military force against its people. It is not killing indiscriminately its own civilian population. But the international community may not understand these differences and may question why Turkey does not launch a ceasefire appeal to the PKK.

Despite these setbacks, the Tehran summit is like a glass half-full. The empty half is that no tangible progress was achieved in the meeting, but full half is that the Astana peace process did not collapse.