This article was published in Arab News on September 24, 2018.
Turkey set to sink deeper into the Syrian imbroglio
Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin last week struck an important deal on Idlib at a summit in Sochi.
Before the meeting, many observers thought that a confrontation between Turkey and Russia was likely. Hours before, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said: “We have to admit that there are differences among the approaches.” With this statement, Russia may have wished to send a message to Turkey that the bargaining was going to be tough.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had floated the idea of opening humanitarian corridors to let civilians leave Idlib before the military operation. Turkey remained lukewarm to this idea, because it would dilute the cease-fire efforts.
Despite this negative preamble, the summit was successful. It established a 15 to 20 kilometer-wide demilitarized zone around Idlib, between the rebels and the government forces, to be jointly patrolled.
Putin said in the press conference after the meeting: “Jabhat Al-Nusra, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS) and other similar opposition factions must remove their heavy weapons, mortars, tanks and rocket systems from the demilitarized zone by Oct. 10.” He deliberately mentioned the names of the rebel organizations and the heavy weapons because he wanted to publicly put on record the critical points of his agreement with Erdogan.
In turn, the Turkish president said: “The opposition will continue to remain in the areas where they are. In return, we will ensure that the radical groups, which we will determine with Russia, will not operate in the area under discussion.”
In a sense, Turkey will have to do the dirty work in Idlib, but it chose to do so of its own volition.
This part of the statement implies that the two leaders had not yet identified which organizations are to be considered radical. Apparently there is much more hard work to do by experts to sort out the details left vague by the leaders for the sake of “constructive ambiguity.” The first controversy may arise here, between Turkey and Russia, because their definition of radical groups differs.
Small-scale clashes may take place during the implementation of the agreement, but the deal has to be praised for having prevented a major operation.
Turkey assumed a gigantic responsibility. It may have wished to buy time and postpone the bloodshed that would be inevitable in the case of a military operation. Or it may have wished to obtain leverage by gaining the allegiance of as many opposition factions as possible, giving it a stronger voice at the negotiating table.
But many questions still remain unanswered: Who is going to force the HTS to take its heavy weapons out of the demilitarized zone and will Turkey fight them if they resist? The radicals know that such a move would tighten the circle around them by one more notch, and they would react accordingly.
Turkish authorities have not yet disclosed the size of the military unit that will be deployed in Idlib. Experts estimate that 30 to 40,000 soldiers may be needed. The bigger the military presence, the more it will be exposed to harassments. On the other hand, the more the Turkish army moves from the moderate opposition toward the radicals, the stiffer the resistance will become.
Turkey will let the radicals choose between surrendering and being eliminated. Such an offer will push them to adopt a hostile attitude. If they surrender, where are they going to be sent or accommodated? If they ask to be evacuated to other Syrian provinces controlled by the Turkish army, such as Afrin, Al-Bab or Jarablus, what are they going to become after the Syrian government extends its sovereignty to these provinces? In a sense, Turkey will have to do the dirty work in Idlib, but it chose to do so of its own volition.
Had Turkey not proposed a cease-fire when the military operation was impending, carnage was going to become difficult to avoid, including high civilian casualties. A huge wave of refugees was going to move toward the Turkish border. Turkey’s initiative prevented this undesirable scenario.
By agreeing to this deal, Putin satisfied Turkey’s demand of delaying, postponing or canceling the military operation. He thus kept Turkey on board in the Astana process. The truce has provided a chance to cool down the conflict, though the possibility of its resurgence is not yet entirely avoided.
Paragraph 9 of the joint communique that followed the agreement provides for the strengthening of the Joint Russian-Turkish-Iranian coordination center that was established when the de-confliction areas were created. If the center functions effectively, NATO member Turkey will be cooperating with Russia more closely than with its allies.
Despite its imperfections, the deal is worth the efforts made to achieve it. If it fails, the hostilities will resume, but the target group may be smaller after separating the moderates and the radicals.
In any event, Turkey’s continued involvement in Idlib may sink it deeper into the Syrian imbroglio.