Yaşar Yakış
Sep 21 2018

Will the Sochi agreement avert carnage in Idlib?

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan staved off a Syrian government offensive on the rebel-held province of Idlib, in a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Monday

Syrian President Bashar Assad’s resolve to extend his control over Idlib and the opposition’s determination to stand and fight the regime remain unchanged, but a bloodbath has been avoided, or postponed. The entire exercise has to be praised if it helped spare the life of even one single human being. 

Ten days ago, in Tehran, Putin opposed Erdoğan’s proposal of a ceasefire in Idlib, but now he has agreed to a modified version of it. The deal has to be regarded, therefore, as a success for Erdoğan.

The agreement is unclear on more than one point, but perhaps it was this “constructive ambiguity”, which saved the day in Sochi.

What is agreed is that a military operation has been postponed and a 15-20 km wide demilitarised zone will be established by between the government and rebel-held areas by Oct. 15. 

At the end of the Sochi meeting, Putin emphasised the importance of preventing terrorists attacking Russian bases in Tartous and Hmeimin and said Jabhat al-Nusra, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other similar opposition factions must remove their heavy weapons, mortars, tanks, rocket systems from the demilitarised zone by Oct. 10. These words indicate what Russian priorities are. 

Joint Turkish-Russian military patrols will gauge whether rebel groups comply with the agreement.

Putin may have accepted Turkey’s demands, because of Russia’s burgeoning bilateral relations with Turkey and the advantages of keeping Ankara on board in the Astana process. In exchange, he decided only to postpone a military operation, which may lead to a denouement or a gradual softening of the atmosphere. If mutual mistrust continues to diminish, the need for a military operation may disappear entirely or the elimination of the radical factions could be achieved with a limited operation that would cause less collateral damage to civilians. 

By agreeing to hold back the military operation against the jihadists, Russia does not lose much, because the attack is not cancelled indefinitely, only postponed until if and when it becomes necessary. 

The other side of the coin is that Turkey has assumed a difficult, risky and intricate responsibility. It will face several challenges: Firstly, it is not an easy task to distinguish between the radical jihadists and moderate opposition. Everyone’s perception of what radical means differs. 

Secondly, the factions that Turkey will not be able to persuade to disarm will be antagonised and may turn against Turkey. So Turkey is being asked to do the dirty work in Idlib.

Thirdly, to what extent one can rely on the word of a terrorist who says he has decided to lay down his arms? 

Turkey should therefore not bite off more than it can chew. There will be always parties that will blame Turkey for not having done what they were expecting. 

There is a favourable wind for Turkey. The trans-Atlantic community prefers Syria without Assad. Ankara may capitalise on that, both to facilitate its task in Idlib and contribute to mending relations that are in dire need of improvement with almost every single country in the West. 

Many things will depend, from now on, on Turkey’s capacity to handle this extremely fragile situation. Several countries will be watching to see whether Turkey falters. Syria, Iran and Russia will oppose, at varying degrees, any Turkish initiative that diverts from the main reason to postpone the military operation, namely, persuading the opposition fighters to join the political process. 

An important by-product of the Sochi meeting is Erdoğan’s insistent emphasis on the threat directed against Turkey’s security by Kurdish fighters of the People’s Protection Units. Erdoğan raised this subject as an item outside the agenda, both in Tehran and Sochi, and ultimately was able to draw public attention to this subject, which will probably become a very big problem for Turkey, much more important than Idlib. Russia’s response to this initiative is not yet known.   

Briefly, Erdoğan and Putin took the right decision. Turkey took on a big challenge and the outcome will depend on its performance.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.