Elijah J. Magnier
President Vladimir Putin agreed to meet his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who came to Moscow seeking a ceasefire he could not announce unilaterally on the battlefield, where he has lost momentum. Thousands of Turkish soldiers were pushed onto the frontline against the Syrian army and its allies because the tens of thousands of jihadists deployed in Idlib and its rural surroundings were unable to defend Turkish interests in the northwest of Syria. President Erdogan came out of the six-hour negotiations at best a winner in some respects but with his wings clipped. President Putin skillfully showed the Turkish President the weakness of his case. Syria will remain united.
A well-informed source said that “Erdogan wanted a ceasefire in Idlib but could not announce it himself because it would have cost him dearly domestically. He lost the war when he failed to recover Saraqeb and recover the entire 70-kilometre-long highway linking Aleppo to Damascus, known as the M5. He wanted Putin to bring him down from the tree. The Russian President understood and saved his business partner from humiliation.”
President Erdogan agreed on the Astana agreement as to the basis for a deal, recognising the role of Iran, who will soon organise a summit of the three presidents. Putin and Erdogan did not agree on all points, in particular on Turkey’s desire to establish a buffer zone in the Syrian Kurdish province and to dislodge the Kurds from Ayn al-Arab.
Erdogan’s argument about the refugees flocking to his country was easily dismantled. Putin understands that Turkey is organising the transfer to Greece of Afghans, Somalis, Iraqis and other refugees along with Syrians. The Turkish aim is to pressure the European community to honour its financial commitments.
Most importantly, President Putin gave President Erdogan no room to manoeuvre on the M5 and M4 (Aleppo-Latakia road), the two roads that were supposed to be cleared in October 2018. Erdogan had established further observation points, unforeseen by the Astana agreement, to expand the control of Jihadists. The Syrian army liberated the M5 during the last months of battle when over 210 cities and villages returned to the power of the government forces. Erdogan agreed with Moscow to open the M4, now under the jihadists’ control. This is a significant victory for the Syrian army notwithstanding a serious doubt that the jihadists will agree to secure civilian circulation on the road. The Russian and Turkish troops are expected to patrol the road after the 15th of this month.
If Turkey fails to respect the deal and allows the reopening of the M4, Russia and its allies will not hesitate to regain control of it by force, but this time without the Turkish army’s intervention. Ankara sent its army to support the jihadists and stop the Syrian army’s advance. It has failed to do so. Erdogan came to Russia at his own repeated request. He can no longer rebuff his promises following the harsh battle of Idlib these last months. Putin sharply told him that death of the 33 soldiers in the convoy targeted in the last week of February was due to the Turkish army’s presence along with the jihadists and the failure to inform Russia of their position, as agreed between Russia and Turkey. Erdogan had no answer to this argument, which makes him accept both the responsibility for the death of his soldiers and the embarrassment of being in the company of jihadists he was supposed to fight against. Overtly, the Turkish President accused the Syrian army of all violations, to avoid domestic accountability for the death of his soldiers.
Putin pushed Erdogan to recognise his failure to follow through on his promise to separate the jihadists from the rebels, an apparent failure to respect the Astana agreement.
Will Turkey manage to separate jihadists from rebels? Will the M4 be cleared? It is no longer critical whether Turkey abides by its commitment. If it fails to do so, Russia will resume its military operations and will push towards Idlib city. Erdogan will no longer be in a position to defend his rebels and jihadists because he will be putting his army at the mercy of Russian and Syrian bombing.
Erdogan committed the biggest mistake of his life by pushing his troops onto the battlefield: he has permitted the Syrian army to bomb Turkish positions and destroy Turkish armed Unmanned Combat Air Vehicles (UCAVs, known as drones). The Syrian military collected Turkish military assets as spoils of war and killed Turkish soldiers and officers with impunity. The redline has been broken, and the confrontation can be repeated without hesitation from Damascus if ever Turkey fails to respect its commitment signed in Moscow.
After the Putin-Erdogan meeting, the jihadists are aware that Turkey is no longer in a position to defend them or their cause. They are left with few choices: fight and die in Syria or leave via the north-east where Turkey is still holding Syrian territory.
The fourteen Turkish observation points in the area liberated by the Syrian army will remain protected and in place as long as Erdogan wishes, courtesy of the Czar of the Kremlin who wants to avoid further humiliating his Turkish guest. Russia is taking great pains not to humiliate the Turkish President and is looking for his collaboration and a long-term relationship.
Putin was aware that NATO, the US and the EU had turned their back on Erdogan. The Turkish President came to surrender Idlib, save face, and ask for more concessions in north-east Syria where the US is still presently stealing Syrian oil. Putin left a door open to the Kurds for when, like the prodigal son, they return to the arms of the Syrian government. The Russian President is aware that the US cannot stay for very long in Syria. Therefore, he can’t give Erdogan any promise to support a long-term Turkish presence in Syria, notably when both Presidents agreed on and announced their respect for Syria’s integrity and unity. Erdogan contested Kurdish participation in the constitutional reform committee. This time he has accepted so that Russia can speed-up the reforms with the help of the Kurds. The goal is to help them come out from under the US umbrella.
A strong Putin offered his hand to the weakened Erdogan. His attempts to play on the Levant territory marked an incursion into the Kremlin’s arena. The Russian President is aware that the relationship with his Turkish partner must be handled very cautiously and that Erdogan’s promises cannot be taken at face value. But Turkey is also aware that Russia will hit harder the next time the Astana agreement and its annexes are violated, and that Putin’s allies in Syria will be more vigilant in any future confrontation against the Turkish army in Syria. One thing is sure: the jihadists have lost a father. Erdogan – who took upon him the spearhead role in overthrowing the Syrian state in 2011 – can no longer offer his protection but is himself looking to come out of his predicament with as few bruises as possible. The time has come for Turkey to leave Idlib.
Proofread by: C.G.B.