The Battle for Idlib: Did Erdogan Capitulate to Putin in Moscow?

There was a celebration in Syria when Russia announced a ceasefire agreement with Turkey on March 3 following a six-hour meeting between Presidents Erdogan and Putin in Moscow. Under the agreement, Erdogan agreed to pull back Turkish forces and not to contest territory that Syria had recently reclaimed from terrorist groups in eastern Aleppo and southern Idlib provinces. In fact, Turkey agreed not to intervene against Syrian troops in any of the areas from which it pulled back, in effect allowing Syrian forces to reclaim even more of its territory from terrorists in southern Idlib.

The agreement appeared to be a capitulation by Erdogan, who, prior to his trip to Moscow, had been demanding that Syria return the reclaimed territory under terms of the Astana agreement inked in September 2018. Syria, on the other hand, argued that Turkey had not fulfilled its obligations under the agreement, thereby allowing Syria to use its military to enforce the terms against the terrorist groups occupying Syrian territory.

But when the Syrians expelled the forces of al-Qaeda affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) from towns and villages along the previous ceasefire lines, Turkey reacted by sending thousands of Turkish reinforcements and massive armaments to the aid of its terrorist allies. Dozens of Turkish troops were killed and Turkey threatened to take direct military action to repel Syrian forces.

How did Turkish demands change so drastically after the Moscow meeting? Was it a capitulation as many Syrians seemed to think? What did Putin say that led Erdogan to an apparent about-face? Did Erdogan really concede in exchange for essentially nothing in return?

A possible clue is a statement by Erdogan to the Turkish parliament on March 4, claiming Idlib as part of the Turkish “homeland.” This will surprise no one familiar with Erdogan’s territorial ambitions toward parts of the former Ottoman Empire. Erdogan is, in fact, sometimes referred to as “Sultan” or “Caliph” in the press, a moniker he doesn’t seem to mind. He has brought thousands of Chinese Uyghurs and other nationalities to fight against the Syrian government and has invited their families to settle in Idlib, where schools now teach students in Turkish instead of Syria’s native Arabic. Erdogan’s intent is clearly to colonize that part of Syria.

Erdogan’s quid pro quo

Is this the quid that Erdogan got in exchange for the quo with Putin? The terms of the agreement call for a Turkish withdrawal to the north of the M4 highway but assure a separation with Syrian forces to the south to be enforced by joint Russian-Turkish patrols in a 12-kilometer wide demilitarized zone (DMZ) along the M4. Is this not in effect a gift of a portion of Idlib province to Turkey – a quasi-permanent Turkish occupation zone inside of Syria? Is Turkey saying that if Israel is allowed to occupy the Golan Heights and the U.S. the eastern Syrian oil fields, why shouldn’t Turkey be allowed its piece of the colonialist pie? Of course, we cannot know for certain that such a gift was part of the Moscow understanding. At most, it’s implied by the separation protocol along the M4. But Erdogan is not known for quietly making deals that are to his disadvantage.

Some will point out that the agreement reinforces the wording of the Astana accord, respecting Syrian sovereignty in all Syrian territory. Unfortunately, this provision lacks implementation other than by the Syrian army, and the Russian-Turkish patrols specified in the Moscow agreement would seem to assure that the Syrian army will be kept at bay. Erdogan can afford to be generous with wording that has no backing.

A further consideration is that the Moscow negotiation was conducted between Russia and Turkey only, not Syria, with the exception of updates via telephone. Of course, Syria is a valued ally of Russia, which prefers to respect Syrian interests. But Russia also has interests, which are not necessarily the same as Syria’s. Russia supports Syria but tries to keep good relations with Turkey. Unfortunately, the Idlib conflict has come close to forcing Russia to make a choice between the two, with several close confrontations between Turkish and Russian forces.  

Russia wants to avoid such a choice, and remain on good terms with both Syria and Turkey. So why would Russia not be willing to make a compromise? Why not – from the Russian point of view – let Turkey keep a corner of Syria for an extended, possibly indefinite, period of time in exchange for both sides accomplishing their short term goals? 

Of course, this is not explicitly spelled out in the agreement, but if Turkey really wishes to respect Syrian sovereignty, why does it not pull back behind the Turkish border rather than the M4 DMZ? Why have a DMZ at all? How does it protect Syrian sovereignty? On the contrary, it protects Turkish “sovereignty” on Syrian soil from possible confrontation with Syrian troops. In fact, Russian troops have already escorted 13 convoys of Turkish troops to Idlib city, just north of the DMZ, as if to prove the point, while Syrian troops are busy mopping up the territories to the south, without Turkish opposition.

Clearly the M4 DMZ is intended as a barrier, with Turkish troops on one side and Syrians on the other with Russians in between. How long will this barrier remain in place? Syrian optimists argue that it is very temporary. But if Russia has decided that a gift of a small piece of Syrian territory is a small price to pay for getting out of a very dangerous situation, what can Syria do about it? Syria cannot afford to split with Russia over such an issue, and will defer any action to recover the rest of Idlib province until… when? Perhaps the case of Korea is instructive.

Feature photo | Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan addresses to his ruling party’s legislator at parliament, in Ankara, Turkey, Feb. 19, 2020. Burhan Ozbilici | AP

By Phil Barbelé
Source: MintPress News

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