2018-09-17

Buffer on a front line: what Putin and Erdogan agreed on in Sochi

By Polina Khimshiashvili, Angelica Basisini.

At the second meeting in 10 days on Syria, leaders of Russia and Turkey agreed to avoid a large-scale military operation in Idlib - a security zone will be created instead. Ankara was particularly interested in this decision.

Vladimir Putin hosted Recep Tayyip Erdogan in his Sochi residence Bocharov Ruchey. The main issue on the agenda, as Erdogan stated before leaving for Russia, was situation in the Syrian province of Idlib. The situation in the last major opposition-controlled and terrorist region of Syria, was already discussed by Putin and Erdogan ten days ago in Tehran. Then, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani participated in the negotiations. However, it turned out to be hard for the three leaders to develop a joint solution.

This time the presidents of Russia and Turkey were determined to find a solution, although neither Idlib nor Syria mentioned either the Idlib or the Syria in the open for the press. "There are a lot of questions, and there are also difficult questions," Putin remarked at the beginning of the meeting, adding that he was happy "to look for solutions where they do not exist yet." "It was not only the region, but the whole world that directed our views on our meeting today," Erdogan said in his turn. "The statement with which we will speak here after the meeting in Sochi, I believe, will be a new hope for the region," the Turkish president promised.

talks resulted in signing by the defense ministers of the two countries of a memorandum on stabilizing the situation in the de-escalation zone in Idlib. The parties agreed to create by 15 October along the contact line of the Syrian government army and the opposition a demilitarized zone of 15-20 km depth with the withdrawal of radical militants from there, the presidents said. By October 10, the withdrawal of heavy weapons of all opposition groups should occur. The Turkish patrol and the Russian military police will control the demilitarized zone.

At the end of September last year, Iran, Russia and Turkey agreed on the creation of four zones of de-escalation in Syria. However, a year later the zone of de-escalation was preserved only one - in Idlib and in parts of the territories of neighboring provinces. The rest of the zones went under the control of the Syrian government, which became possible in part because the insurgents who did not want peace moved to Idlib. Syrian President Bashar Assad is now determined to return this territory to control. His army in recent days led a point fire on the positions of the opposition. Russian RuAF supported it, but the massive offensive did not begin - the Turkish president spoke against him. Idlib, according to the agreements, was the control zone of Turkey: on the perimeter of the zone there are observation posts of the Turkish military, most of the inside of the groupings Turkey supported throughout the seven-year war in Syria.

At the talks in Tehran, Erdogan called for not to inflict massive military strikes on the opposition's positions, which, he said, would lead to an imminent humanitarian crisis and the death of thousands of civilians (he estimates that about 3.5 million people live in the region). Then the consent of the presidents of Iran and Russia, Erdogan was not received, in the final communique of the Tehran meeting contained only an appeal for the early dissociation of moderate opposition from the terrorists of the banned in Russia group "Hayat Tahrir ash Sham" (HTS).

Turkey is interested in preventing the full-scale operation of Damascus in Idlib with the help of Russia, as it fears that it will spread to its allies among the moderate opposition, and this, in turn, will seriously damage the image of Ankara, which will be perceived as a weak player among the "troyka" of the Astana process, says Turkey expert and political consultant Timur Akhmetov. In addition, according to the expert, Ankara fears revenge of terrorists within Turkey itself, in which there are many supporters and sympathizers for some extremist groups. For Turkey, Idlib is also important as a subject of bargaining with Damascus on the Kurdish issue, the expert believes. According to him, after losing Idlib, Ankara may lose the leverage of pressure on the Syrian government to deter Kurdish militias controlling the territories to the east of the Euphrates, including along the Syrian-Turkish border.

For Russia, according to Akhmetov, it was important to maintain a positive attitude in relations with Turkey, taking into account the course of the political dialogue between the opposition and the government. Russia's task was to ensure that militants concentrated in the zone of de-escalation did not threaten Russian military bases (in Tartus and Khmeimim), as well as the provinces and the city of Aleppo, Putin recalled after the talks in Sochi.

As explained by Erdogan, representatives of the opposition will remain in the demilitarized zone. According to him, Turkey together with Russia will eliminate all radical groups in this zone. Also, Turkey will strengthen its observation posts in Idlib. In general, the achieved solutions will prevent a humanitarian crisis, the Turkish president is sure.

The Presidents also agreed before the end of 2018 to restore the transit traffic along the M4 Aleppo - Latakia and M5 Aleppo - Hama (both passing through the province of Idlib). The corresponding agreement, according to Putin, is fixed in the accepted memorandum.

Sochi agreements mean that now there will be no military operation in Idlib. This was reported to journalists by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu following the meeting. According to him, the positions set forth in the memorandum will be coordinated with Damascus in the next few hours.

As Anton Mardasov, expert of the Russian Council for International Affairs (RIAC), told RBC, it is not clear who is going to disarm Turkey in the new demilitarization zone: "on the contact line with the Syrian army and its allies there are pro-Turkish opposition groups, while the terrorists of the HTS in mostly located in the rear of the opposition. " "I think that they [the presidents] simply stressed the joint peaceful efforts with such a beautiful decision," he believes.

At the same time, the M5 highway, about the restoration of the movement on which Putin said, is not limited to 15 km, so it is not clear how the safety of movement in the remaining areas will be ensured, Mardasov said. "All the same, the road will still be vulnerable to the mortar fire of radicals interested in disrupting any agreements," the expert said.

In any case, according to Mardasov, the promulgated scenario implies an intensification of the HST's disarmament process and the "dissolution" of some of its detachments in the pro-Turkish opposition. According to the expert, the Sochi agreements allowed Turkey to actually defend its plan for demarcation of the opposition and extremists, presented in Tehran, and Russia managed to avoid participation in a large-scale operation, which she did not want. "The fixing of the agreements implies that the Syrian army should not openly sabotage them, but provocations are still possible, including by pro-government forces," the expert warns.

The result of the Sochi meeting is, albeit modest, but still the victory of Erdogan, who was able to gain time and postpone the military operation in Idlib, said Yury Barmin, a Middle East expert. Nevertheless, he calls the deadlines for the implementation of the agreements "ambitious." Barmin doubts that by October Turkey will be able to create a demilitarized zone in some areas (on the border with Aleppo and in the vicinity of the city of Jisr al-Shugur), where radical groups close to the Al-Qaeda terrorist group (banned in Russia) operate. "At the stage of the withdrawal of heavy weapons in these areas, clashes with extremists may begin," the expert notes.

Barmin also points out the unrealistic scenario of the opening of the M4 and M5 trails, which cross the de-escalation zone in Idlib, but do not enter the new demilitarization zone. "Obviously, for their opening, such security guarantees must be created, which at this stage neither Moscow nor Ankara can give," he summed up.

The Russian side did not take risks and went to a compromise solution with Turkey, while Ankara, because of the threat of escalation of the situation in Idlib, had to assume even more obligations and, accordingly, risks, Akhmetov said. "Ankara's inability to solve the problem of the presence of terrorists in the province is likely to deprive the Turks of all legitimate reasons to resist the military operation of the Syrian government troops," the expert concluded.

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