2018-09-18

Syrian knot: Russia and Turkey clarified future of Idlib


The leaders of Turkey and Russia met again to discuss the Syrian issue. The planned summit was held in Sochi on Monday, September 17. It is hardly surprising the increased contacts between Putin and Erdogan - both leaders act as the main guarantors of a political settlement in the Middle East. Moreover, with the elimination of terrorist centers in southern Syria, the Syrian army is ready to begin sweeping the last zone of de-escalation. A military operation against a terrorist organization with which the people of the former Soviet Union are fighting side by side can end in a far greater catastrophe: the Turkish government does not want to lose control over the Syrian province and is trying in every possible way to convince its Russian partners to come to an agreement.

At the final press conference, the heads of Russia and Turkey paid much attention to the issues of economic and cultural cooperation between the two countries. In the field of their attention were mutual supplies of goods, easing of the visa regime, the construction of the gas pipeline "Turkish flow" and much more. But the main was still the theme of the Syrian settlement and, above all, the search for a solution to the situation around Idlib.


What Turkey expects from
military operation in Idlib?
Until then, the entire political process was taking place at an unfavorable for Ankara key. Until August 2018, the attention of the parties was focused on the actions of the Syrian government in the south of the country, where Damascus, with the support of Russian aviation, succeeded in clearing the Syrian border with Jordan and Israel from international terrorists and at the same time getting evacuated supporters of irreconcilable opposition to Idlib.

With the elimination of hotbeds of instability and the beginning of the transfer of Syrian troops to northern Syria to the borders of the so-called Turkish zone of responsibility, Turkish diplomacy launched an offensive to preserve the existing gains in the remaining de-escalation zone in Idlib.

The refusal of Iran and Russia to discuss at the summit in Tehran the possibility of establishing an official ceasefire with terrorist organizations was a signal to Turkey that sooner or later the anti-terrorist operation in Idlib will be held. In the conditions of diplomatic pressure within the framework of the Astana process, Turkey tried to delay the conduct of active military operations against terrorists on its border.

Fears of Turkey are caused primarily by the fact that the military operation of the Syrian army and Russian aviation can cover the positions of the moderate opposition, which is basically pro-Turkish. Of the 80,000 armed militants in Idlib, about 20,000 are among the terrorists from the Nusry organization, Which is the main target of Damascus, Moscow and Tehran. Another 30-40 thousand people are included in various radical groups, which Turkey is trying to persuade to abandon the support of terrorists and join the ranks of the moderate opposition.

Turkey's international position is weakened by the difficult relations with its Western partners. Neither Europe nor the US, although calling to prevent violence in Idlib, are not ready to uphold the Turkish position that terrorists need to negotiate. A certain pressure on the Turkish government is also provided by the domestic political situation. The stay of more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees in the country for more than three years has contributed to the growth of nationalistic and anti-government sentiments, which are further exacerbated by the economic crisis and marked increases in food and services prices.


Turkey's new security concept may
lead to a dialogue with Damascus
A part of the ruling elites formed the opinion that Iran, which has recently lost its position in the south of Syria under the pressure of Russia and the international community, is trying in every possible way to slow down Russian-Turkish cooperation in Syria. The requirement to conduct a military operation by the most efficient units of the Syrian army with the support of pro-Iranian Shi'ite formations stationed near Idlib contributes to increased tensions between Russia and Turkey, as it weakens the positions of each side. It was in these circumstances that Putin and Erdogan expected that the meeting in Sochi on Monday would bring certain clarity to their position on Idlib and would contribute to the development of a compromise solution.

Actually, this is what really happened. The compromise that Russian and Turkish sides have found in Sochi includes several important and interrelated aspects.

First, we are talking about measures to distinguish between moderate opposition and terrorists. Strengthening of the Turkish observation posts, as well as increasing the perimeter of the safe zone, should ideally remove the threat of terrorist attacks on Russian military bases and Syrian units. Terrorist organizations, separated from the bulk of the civilian population and moderate opposition, may be destroyed in the future in close coordination with the Turkish, Syrian and Russian authorities.

Secondly, it is about stimulating the political process. Here the whole burden falls just on the shoulders of the Turks, who should convince as many of the militants as possible to begin negotiations with the Syrian government. Turkey expressed its commitment to both the Astana mechanism and the inter-Syrian political negotiations.

It should be noted that for Idlib, the issue of Idlib is not limited to considerations of the situation exclusively within the province. Any hostile actions against the terrorist organization inside Idlib can lead to the activation of the network of its supporters and sympathizers within Turkey itself, and this network has already grown noticeably stronger in recent years. The fight against Nusra should have an ideological coloring acceptable for Turkish special conditions.


Turkish solitaire and tripartite summit in Ankara
In addition to the threat of terrorist attacks inside Turkey, Ankara seeks to avoid the unfavorable development of the situation in the fight against the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party. The Syrian branch of this organization closely cooperates with the American troops in the territories of the left bank of the Euphrates. Turkey fears that sooner or later Syrian Kurdish armed organizations, with the support of the United States, will demand autonomy from Damascus, which will be the first step towards the separation of Syrian Kurds. This will inevitably lead to an increase in separatism in the eastern provinces of Turkey itself, where it is already unsettled.

In this light, Turkey's desire to stay in Idlib should be seen as an attempt to maintain a lever of pressure on the Syrian authorities, which can use the Kurdish factor in pressure on the Turks in the future.

Russia's principal position is to eliminate the terrorist threat in Syria and to transfer the armed conflict in the country to the political plane. At the same time, the demands of the Turkish side can be viewed as more or less acceptable for Russian interests.

First of all, maintaining a military Turkish presence in the province strengthens Turkey's responsibility for what is happening in Idlib. The more Turkish soldiers are in Syria in conditions of military-political instability and uncertainty, the less will the Turkish side have to take radical and unpredictable steps against the Syrian government.

In addition, the very desire of Russia to postpone the repeatedly announced military operation at the request of the Turkish side only contributes to strengthening the mechanism of bilateral cooperation. Considering that the request for a postponement came from the country's top leadership, a compromise can bring big dividends in other matters.

Finally, in the long term, Turkey's attempts to blur terrorist organizations, instead of destroying them, can lead to radicalization of the moderate opposition.

An example of the policy of the pro-Turkish Syrian administration in the north of Syria shows that the more moderate supporters in the ranks of the adherents of the introduction of sharia and radical ideas, the more the local population becomes disillusioned with the idea of ​​the Syrian revolution and the practicality of confronting the Syrian government in principle.

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