The Russo-Turkish deal to split Idlib into zones of influence with a de-militarised zone in the middle
As predicted in an article originally published in Eurasia Future on the 14th of September, Russia and Turkey have agreed to effectively split the troubled Syrian Governorate of Idlib into zones of influence. According to an agreement reached between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan after a day long meeting in Sochi, both nations will oversee the creation of a 15 to 20 kilometre de-militarised zone separating parts of Idlib whose de-facto rulers are supported by Turkey and southern regions of Idlib that will be re-integrated under government rule. In addition to creating the de-militarised zone, the agreement between Russia and Turkey allows for the armed forces of both states to go after groups mutually regarded as terrorist organisations with President Erdogan placing a key emphasis on the wider need to jointly confront the YPG/PKK, the terror group currently occupying vast swaths of Syrian territory east of the River Euphrates.
There will be no Idlib offensive
This was followed by a statement from Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu who said that the so-called Idlib offensive being touted by many pro-Damascus actors as forthcoming, while being promulgated by White House hawks Nikki Haley and John Bolton as an imminent catastrophe, will in reality not even happen.
Instead of an Idlib offensive that was over-hyped by both sides (with the exception of Russia) in order to conform to a zero-sum narrative regarding the wider conflict, the reality of the situation in the aftermath of the Russo-Turkish agreement in Sochi conforms exactly to the following scenario that I described when predicting the outcome of the present deal between Putin and Erdogan:
Government forces would get to retake part of Idlib and thus gain a substantial boost of morale before making further political concessions according to Russia’s model of a political settlement to the conflict. Thus, Syria would get to feel as though it retook ‘almost’ “every inch” of its territory before the inevitable political compromises come to the fore.
Turkey has invested a great deal of time and effort into building a civil society base in northern Idlib. While Damascus will always detest this fact, it is nevertheless a fact of life. Furthermore, because Turkey has already taken in as many Syrian refugees as it can, any immediate withdrawal from Idlib and northern Aleppo might cause a migrant crisis that Turkey cannot afford as many of the Arabs and Turkmen living under de-facto Ankara rule in northern Syria would not want to live back under Damascus. Because of this, Russia supports Turkey’s role in the region so as to avoid a new migrant crisis on top of a military conflict. In terms of compromise, Russia expects Turkey to allow Damascus’ forces to retake some of southern Idlib in exchange for Russia putting a stop to a would-be Damascus offensive in northern Idlib.
Iran’s economic crisis is such that it cannot afford to assert itself in Idlib vis-a-vis its partners Turkey and Russia – both of whom have very publicly vowed to defy the threat of US sanctions as a result of their continued willingness to engage in commerce with Iran. Because of this, while Tehran holds a view that all of Idlib should be retaken by Damascus, the country isn’t in a position to persuade the Syrian government to defy both Turkey and Russia”.
With this in mind, while Russia remains the most influential of any power in the Syria conflict, Moscow’s closest partner in the conflict from a geopolitical perspective is clearly Turkey. While Syria and Iran are privately upset that the prevailing circumstances have led to a major compromise rather than what the Syrian President calls a strategy of “liberating every inch of Syria” and while Turkey and the US seem to have reached something of a medium term impasse regarding Washington’s continued support for the YPG/PKK terror group, Turkey and Russia are both on the same page when it comes to the need to transform the Syrian conflict from a hot war into a negotiated settlement.
Likewise, while Russia and Turkey continue to approach various armed groups and the Syrian government itself with radically different preservatives, the fact that both President Putin and President Erdogan are pushing those in Syria whom they clearly influence to make urgent concessions, means that in playing “good cop–bad cop” (depending on how one defines good and bad in the Syria conflict), both the Russian and Turkish Presidents are helping to enact pragmatic solutions. This is the case even when at times they both have to resort to hyperbolic displays of melodrama aimed at their respective constituents in the Syrian conflict in order to lend credibility to the eventual compromise. Such a display of exaggerated political theatre regarding each side’s traditional views on the Syria conflict was best demonstrated at the recent meeting of the Astana Group of Russia, Turkey and Iran.
In this sense, while Putin and Erdogan have at times respectfully emphasised their traditional differences regarding Syria in public, in private the accords they have reached are a restraining factor on all of the most extreme actors in the conflict.
America and Iran finally have something in common
The elephants in the room at the Putin-Erdogan meeting in Sochi were the United States and Iran. While Iran positions itself as Syria’s most loyal ally and while the US takes a position constituting the opposite extreme, neither country was mentioned in any significant way during the public statements made by the leaders of Russia and Turkey. In Iran’s case, with the full force of US sanctions to hit Tehran in November, the Islamic Republic simply cannot afford to privately disagree with Russia or Turkey on the need to compromise over a Syria conflict that in any case is reaching its final proverbial hours. As both Russia and Turkey have made steadfast commitments to continue a normal business and diplomatic relationship with Iran after sanctions come back into force, Iran simply cannot risk alienating Russia or Turkey given the severity of the economic crisis that is already putting pressure on the Iranian Rial and the economy as a whole.
But if Iran has come to accept that Russia and Turkey are the two most influential powers in the Syria from a position of economic weakness, how does one account for the sidelining of the United States? Unlike Iran, the US is powerful enough to bomb, blackmail and sanction its way back to relevance in Syria. The fact remains however that the US has been backed into a corner as the Russo-Turkish Idlib deal is an offer that even Washington is not so hypocritical to refuse. While Russia never stated that a so-called ‘Idlib offensive’ was going to take place, the US acting under the assumption that it would, was exposed by Moscow as making preparations for helping to stage a false flag chemical weapons provocation to then justify further missile strikes against Syria. The entire time the US threatened such a strike, the justification was based on the alleged brutality of a Russo-Syrian offensive that was yet to happen.
Because now the offensive will not happen and because furthermore, NATO member Turkey has struck an agreement for a major de-escalation of tensions in Idlib, the US is now left with little justification for saying or doing anything regarding Idlib other than grudgingly supporting the Turkish position in spite of other well known differences between America and Turkey’s Syria policy regarding radical Kurdish terror groups.
Because of this, apart from nitpicking about particulars of the deal, the US has effectively by silenced by its own narrative as Russia and Turkey have put the stop to a Damascus led offensive on Idlib. This is why late on the 17th of September, the US State Department had little choice but to endorse the Russo-Turkish agreement.
Israel and friendly fire
Hours after Presidents Putin and Erdogan shook hands in Sochi, several large apparent missile strikes hit Syria’s Lataki Governorate. The missile strikes which even pro-Tel Aviv media admit were Israeli strikes (before later being confirmed by Russia) were likely a poor substitution for a would-be US led strike that many expected should an “Idlib offensive” have taken place. Because it is now clear beyond a reasonable doubt that such an offensive will not take place, Israeli F-16s bombed Syrian Arab Army facilities that its western partners found objectionable in what amounts to little more than a face saving endeavour after a month of making grandiose threats against Damascus. In other words after the western powers made so many threats against Syria in anticipation of an Idlib offensive, someone had to deliver at least something. As usual, Israel was happy to fulfil this role against its long-time Arab Nationalist rival.
Tragically, in the midst of this missile strike, a Russian Il-20 aircraft vanished from the radar. Ultimately it was confirmed that the Russian aircraft was struck by a Syrian operated Soviet made S-200 missile defence projectile. It appears that Syrian Arab Army members presumed that the Russian plane was Israeli rather than Russian.
To better understand how this tragic event was able to happen, it becomes crucial to understand that Israel and the US both have high level lines of communication with Russia that are used to avoid any possibility of a direct military confrontation in the region. While Syria and Russia obviously communicate frequently as long term partners, the truth of the matter is that the coordination of Syria’s forces on the ground remains more haphazard than that of the US or Israel, as one could expected from a comparatively poorly armed country that has been involved in a behemoth war for seven years.
This incident of friendly fire is an unspeakable tragedy. Still, the repercussions of this tragedy are incredibly important. It is well known that many supporters of Damascus and some of Syria’s own policy makers did in fact desire a full-scale Idlib offensive. As such, it is natural to expect some of these individuals to be upset with Russia for reaching a compromise with Turkey. Now however that Syria downed a Russian aircraft, Damascus has no leg to stand on should it try to demand that Russia reneges on its agreement with Turkey. In short, because Damascus made the mother of all irresponsible mistakes in downing the Russian aircraft, its more radical policy makers have surrendered virtually all leverage in respect of trying to convince Russia to change course in Idlib.
The Russo-Turkish agreement is a testament to the ever growing strategic closeness between Moscow and Ankara while it represents something of a watershed moment in which Iran has had to play second fiddle to its partners Russia and Turkey while the US has likewise backed itself into a corner due to the fact that its own zero-sum narrative on Idlib has hit a brick wall seeing as there will be no Idlib offensive.
At the same time, while Israel conducted yet another otherwise strategically meaningless strike on Syria, the friendly fire downing of a Russian aircraft by Damascus’s forces is a further sign that as Russia seeks to put an end to the conflict, no side that wants more war rather than less will be in a reasonable position to convince Russia to change its policy in support of a negotiated settlement to be conducted as soon as possible.