Showdown in Idlib: Master Statesman Putin Averts War with Combative Erdogan

The media has done a poor job of explaining what’s actually taking place in Idlib Province in Syria. That’s unfortunate, but the facts are pretty clear. A year and a half ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan made a deal in Sochi. No one twisted Erdogan’s arm to sign the agreement or pressured him in any way. He signed the document of his own free will. The so called Sochi Memorandum of Understanding covers a number of important items, but we intend to limit our focus to just three crucial points:

  1. All radical terrorist groups will be withdrawn from the demilitarized zone by October 15, 2018
  2. All tanks, artillery, MLRS and mortars of the conflicting parties will be withdrawn from the demilitarized zone by October 10, 2018.
  3. In the interests of ensuring free movement of local residents and goods, as well as restoring trade and economic ties, transit traffic along the routes M4 and M5 will be restored before the end of 2018

These three points are the heart and soul of the Sochi agreement, and on all three points, Erdogan has failed to meet his obligations. That’s the first thing readers need to understand: Erdogan has shown that he is neither trustworthy nor reliable.

Under the terms of the agreement, Turkey was allowed to establish 12 observation posts (basically small bases) that its troops would occupy while they separated the so called “moderate rebels” from the hardcore al Qaida-linked jihadists. Then, the jihadists were to be removed from the Idlib de-escalation zone. Once again, this was all part of the deal Erdogan signed in Sochi in September, 2018.

Not only did Turkey never lift a finger to keep up its end of the bargain, it also allowed the jihadists to cluster around its observation posts in order to protect them from attack. According to many independent reports: “Observation posts of the Turkish forces in Syria’s Idlib de-escalation zone were located in the fortified areas of terrorist groups and practically merged with them even though Turkey had pledged to oust the terrorists.” At the same time, the terrorists conducted “daily shellings of the Russian air base at Hmeymim and on Syrian cities” to the south. These same Sunni extremists launched an offensive that (temporarily) allowed them to capture the strategic city of Saraqib and parts of the critical M4 and M5 highways. All of these hostile actions originated from the zone that Turkey promised to purge of Sunni militants. This is why Putin finally decided to take matters into his own hands and clear the area for himself.

Anyone who has watched this fiasco unfold for the last year and a half, will tell you the same thing, that Erdogan did not just break the Sochi deal, he stomped on it, he spat on it and he wiped his a** with it. That’s the plain truth of the matter. All the blather you might have read in the New York Times or the Washington Post about the ‘poor refugees’ or the ‘moderate rebels’ is all diversionary baloney. It doesn’t mean a thing. What’s important is that Erdogan has been aiding the terrorists from the very beginning; arming them, training them, and likely providing them with vital logistical support. These Sunni militants are Turkey’s proxy-army prosecuting a war of territorial expansion. You won’t read that in the NY Times either, but it’s true. Turkey’s military operation in Idlib is a war for land.

That’s why Erdogan has gone hysterical now that the Syrian army and Russian airforce are rolling back his army of cutthroats and methodically blowing them to smithereens. It’s because Erdogan’s dream of integrating a large slice of northern Syria into greater Turkey is going up in smoke as the Syrian Army continues its inexorable military offensive.

It’s worth noting that Erdogan doesn’t want a “safety zone” to protect Turkey’s national security. That’s another lie. He wants to annex the land that was part of the Ottoman Empire before the post-WW1 imperial carve-up. That’s not only his clear objective, it’s also a recurrent theme in Turkey’s pro-regime newspaper, The Daily Sabah, which has published a number of op-eds justifying the flagrant theft of Syrian territory. Case in point: Check out this clip from a recent piece titled “Is there any hope for Idlib solution”:

“Here’s what Turkey simply cannot do: Ankara cannot stomach the Assad regime’s policy of removing Sunnis from Syria…Otherwise, the repatriation of nearly 7 million Syrian refugees will become impossible. Hence Turkey’s commitment to maintaining a presence in three terror-free areas and possibly a safe zone in Idlib.” (Daily Sabah)

What the author is saying is that these al-Qaida-linked groups (Hayat Tahrir al–Sham,National Front for Liberation, al Nusra etc) are not vicious cutthroats who are trying to topple the legitimate government, but just ordinary working class “Sunnis” trying to muddle by in a tough neighborhood. Does anyone believe this nonsense? The author also indicates that Turkey is planning to permanently occupy parts of Syria. (“maintaining a presence in three terror-free areas”.) Can you see how the Turkey’s propaganda media is pushing the agenda of the regime??

And it gets better, too. Here’s another excerpt from an article in the Daily Sabah:

“For the Russians, Idlib may have strategic significance as a link between Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia. Yet, the province means much more to the Turks. For Ankara, Idlib is key to continued Turkish control of the three safe zones in northern Syria.” (Daily Sabah)

” Idlib is key to continued Turkish control of …northern Syria”??

Once again, you can see that Turkey is planning to permanently occupy parts of N Syria and they are invoking the “national security” hoax to make their case.

Here’s more: “Putin must understand that Erdoğan, who values his personal relationship with the Russian leader, is determined to conduct a comprehensive military operation in Idlib. Erdoğan told his party’s parliamentary caucus that “the Idlib operation is a matter of time” – as he had said before three Turkish incursions into Syria. Indeed, the Turkish president’s intention was to present the Kremlin with a wake-up call and called on Moscow to recognize Turkey’s vital interests in the region.” (Daily Sabah)

So now stealing Syrian territory is in Turkey’s “vital interests”? That’s about as close to an explicit declaration of territorial aggression that you’ll ever hear.

And there’s more: “….Ankara’s latest move is intended as a prelude to its comprehensive military operation. It signals Turkey’s commitment to controlling the strategically important M4 and M5 highways…. The clashes between Turkish troops and the Assad regime have not yet resulted in a direct confrontation between Turks and Russians….Before the situation spins out of control, Putin has one last chance to prevent a trainwreck that would inflict irreparable damage to his country’s “strategic ties” with Turkey.” (“The Kremlin must heed Erdoğan’s warning”, Daily Sabah)

There it is in black and white. Turkey wants to control Syria’s main transportation corridors in the North. So we’re not just talking about permanent occupation or land theft, we’re also talking about pilfering critical infrastructure that will seriously impact Syria’s efforts at reunification.

The beauty of a government-controlled media, is that their presstitude editorial writers foolishly blurt out exactly what the regime has up its sleeve. In this case, it’s all about creating a pretext for stealing Syrian land. Here’s what the Turkish government is hoping to achieve:

  1. Maintain the presence of Turkish-backed terrorists in the deescalation zone (“Ankara cannot stomach the Assad regime’s policy of removing Sunnis from Syria”)
  2. Occupy and control large parts of N Syria using the cover of a “safe zone”. (“continued Turkish control of the three safe zones in northern Syria.”)
  3. Control the vital transportation corridors between north to south and east to west. (“strategic significance as a link between Damascus, Aleppo and Latakia.”)
  4. Putin must renege on his commitment to defeat terrorism in Syria in order to preserve his “strategic ties” with Turkey.”

Regarding Number 4, these same Turkish propagandists have taken it upon themselves to warn Putin that he’d better meet Turkey’s demands ‘or else.’ Here are a few cautionary clips from Thursday’s Daily Sabah delivering veiled threats to Putin on the day he is set to meet with Erdogan in Moscow:

“The two leaders are set to discuss the recent developments in Syria, including cease-fire violations in the Idlib de-escalation zone, a stronghold of opposition forces in the war-torn country since 2011.” (Note: “stronghold of opposition forces” actually means bastion of bloodthirsty terrorists)

“The regime and its allies have consistently broken the terms of the 2018 cease-fire and a new one that started on Jan. 12, launching frequent attacks inside the territory.” (Note: More lies. Turkey continues to funnel troops and heavy military equipment into Idlib almost daily in clear violation of the Sochi agreement.)

Here’s more: “Disregarding Turkey’s national security would damage the relationship between the two countries…Does Putin want to do that?

To be honest, Moscow seems to have no choice but to come to an agreement with Ankara and withdraw the regime behind the borders of the demilitarized zone agreed to in Sochi in September 2018. Otherwise, Ankara will do what is necessary for its national security and interests. Ankara has shown that what it has done since Feb. 10 is just a start.” (The Daily Sabah)

In other words, Putin must cave in to Turkey’s demands or Erdogan will wage a war on Russia. This is just blackmail disguised as diplomacy, but no one should be fooled.

So how is Putin going to respond to these threats? Will he give Erdogan what he wants and end his campaign to defeat terrorism in Syria? Will he abandon his ally Assad and forgo trying to preserve Syria’s territorial integrity? What will he do?

Well, he’s already provided air support for the Syrian army to retake the M4 and M5 highways, and he has also deployed Russian military police to Saraqib to prevent Turkey from initiating another reckless terrorist-led offensive. So he hasn’t thrown in the towel and given in to Erdogan, but that doesn’t mean he’s not willing to “cut a deal” or try to find a compromise that will at least partially address the Turkish president’s demands. In fact, he probably will, after all, Putin doesn’t want to be in Syria forever nor does he want a war with a valued but unreliable ally like Erdogan.

That said, no one should be surprised if Putin looks the other way while Turkish troops establish a safe zone north of the M4 and M5 highways. Putin is not an ideologue, he’s a pragmatist who’s looking for a way to end the fighting while defending Russia’s national interests. He would eagerly accept an imperfect solution that gives Erdogan much of what he wants provided it doesn’t dramatically comprise the viability of the Syrian state or provide a safe haven for the terrorists. Everything else is still on the table.

But here’s what Putin will not accept. He won’t accept hotbeds of al Qaida-linked groups scattered across the country challenging the government, disrupting state security and moving willy-nilly to other countries where they create similar problems. To clarify Putin’s position on terrorism, here’s what he said in 2015 in a speech to the UN General Assembly:

“It is irresponsible to manipulate extremist groups and use them to achieve your political goals, hoping that later you’ll find a way to get rid of them or somehow eliminate them. We consider that any attempts to flirt with terrorists, let alone arm them, are short-sighted and extremely dangerous. This may make the global terrorist threat much worse, spreading it to new regions around the globe, especially since there are fighters from many different countries, including European ones, gaining combat experience with Islamic State. Unfortunately, Russia is no exception.

Now that those thugs have tasted blood, we can’t allow them to return home and continue with their criminal activities. Nobody wants that, right?

Russia has consistently opposed terrorism in all its forms. Today, we provide military-technical assistance to Iraq, Syria and other regional countries fighting terrorist groups. We think it’s a big mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian authorities and government forces who valiantly fight terrorists on the ground.” (“Putin’s speech at the 70th session of the UN General Assembly”, The Kremlin website)

What does this tell us about Russian policy?

Number 1: Russia will remain at the forefront of the fight against global terrorism. Nothing Erdogan can do or say will change that.

Number 2– Russia will continue its efforts to preserve the Syrian nation-state because Putin believes that the sovereign state is the cornerstone upon which international law and global security rests. Again, there is no flexibility on this point. Here’s Putin again in a speech at the
Valdai Discussion Club:

“We have no doubt that sovereignty is the central notion of the entire system of international relations. Respect for it and its consolidation will help underwrite peace and stability both at the national and international levels…First of all, there must be equal and indivisible security for all states.” (Valdai International Discussion Club, “The Future in Progress: Shaping the World of Tomorrow”, The President of Russia)

Russia’s approach to global terrorism, international law and state sovereignty has shaped its foreign policy and created the guidelines for making important decisions like those related to the crisis in Idlib. Putin will undoubtedly look for a face-saving way for Erdogan to claim victory even though his demands will not be entirely met. Putin will also have to give ground if he wants to avoid a confrontation that could escalate into a full-blown war with Turkey. Both leaders will have to focus on finding the middle ground and agree to an imperfect settlement that doesn’t compromise core values but at least partially satisfies each others basic requirements. It’s certainly worth the effort if it brings an end to the fighting, after all, a half-loaf peace deal is better than no peace deal at all.

This just in from RT News: Cease-fire to begin Friday at midnight –Putin and Erdogan agree to joint-patrols along M4, M5 highways and de-escalation zone.

The Russian and Turkish leaders have held a press conference in Moscow, after coming to an agreement to de-escalate the Syrian-Turkish conflict in the war-torn Idlib province.

During the talks, Putin and Erdogan agreed a document detailing a ceasefire in Idlib, starting from midnight on March 6.

A six-kilometer-wide security corridor is to be established in the area, with the militaries of the two countries given a week to agree all the details. Russian and Turkish troops will also be carrying out joint patrol missions along Idlib’s M-4 highway. The document, signed after the negotiations, underlined that both Moscow and Ankara remained committed to maintaining the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Syria.” (RT)

By Mike Whitney
Source: Unz Review

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