March 8, 2020
On March 6, Presidents of Russia and Turkey met in Moscow. In remarks to the press before their meeting, President Putin said the situation in Idlib has deteriorated so much that the two leaders needed to have a direct and personal discussion. He added, “As you requested, we are ready to begin our talks one-on-one, and then our colleagues, who are with us in this room, will join us, if necessary.”
Thus, after the talks in restricted format, consultations continued with the participation of the delegations of the two countries. One may conclude, therefore, that the Syrian conflict with its Idlib dimension and the future of Russian-Turkish relations were taken up between the two leaders at full length.
The “Additional Protocol to the Memorandum on Stabilization of the Situation in the Idlib De-Escalation Area”, probably based on a Russian draft, represents a respite reflecting two sides’ desire to avoid a dramatic downturn in bilateral relations.
With developments such as the Astana process and Turkey’s purchase of S-400 air defense systems, Moscow has successfully driven a wedge in relations between Turkey and its traditional allies. There is no way Russia would forgo this except in case of a 180 degree turn by Ankara. Again, there is no way Russia would forgo what it has accomplished in Syria following its military intervention. Russia wishes to re-energize the political process and Idlib has now become a nuisance. So, Russia is trying to balance its investment in relations with Ankara with its determination to save the regime and emerge as the major winner in Syria.
As for Ankara, the government can’t possibly afford a major setback in its overall cooperation, particularly economic and trade relations with Russia. These are far more important than what transpires in Idlib. The Turkish government, however, has committed itself to an unwinnable cause in Syria and primarily for domestic reasons needs face-saving compromises along the way towards the exit. Following the Moscow summit, a senior member of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party said the Moscow agreement has paved the way for a political solution to the conflict and Turkey with its resolute stand got what it wanted. Nobody has ever heard such statements from the Russian side.
The Moscow Additional Protocol does not resolve the Idlib conundrum. Turkish leadership had served an ultimatum on the Syrian regime promising severe military punishment if its forces were not to withdraw to lines drawn in the so-called “Sochi agreement” between Russia and Turkey. Obviously, this is not going to happen. Yes, the parties have undertaken to cease all military actions along the line of contact in the Idlib De-escalation area starting from 00:01 of March 6, 2020, but they have once again expressed “their determination to combat all forms of terrorism, and to eliminate all terrorist groups in Syria as designated by the UNSC, while agreeing that targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure cannot be justified under any pretext”.
As for Damascus, it will suspend, for a while, its military campaign to force Idlib’s Sunni population and the rebels/terrorists out on to Turkish soil.
In brief, the following questions remain unanswered:
- Are Russia, Iran and the Assad regime determined to eliminate the militants no matter what?
- If, in theory, the “militants” (in his remarks to the press President Putin called them “criminal gangs”) were to leave Idlib, where would they go?
- Is there any hope of separating the ‘healthy opposition’ from the ‘terrorists’?”
Now that a respite has been secured with Russia, Ankara has to turn its attention to the West, particularly the EU to win another respite in “the war of refugees” and try to build upon Washington’s recent “generous expressions of support for its NATO ally”.
Since the Russian intervention in Syria, Ankara has been running in a narrow alley between its northern and now southern neighbor and the West. This alley is getting narrower and narrower as we seem to approach the end, just trying to guess what awaits us there.