The downing of a Russian Il-20 aircraft just off the coast of the Syrian city of Latakia has led to a number of cross-border accusations with Israel blaming Syria for the tragedy, Syria blaming Israel and long term Zionist ambitions for the incident, the Russian President blaming a “tragic set of circumstances”, the Russian Defence Ministry blaming Israeli recklessness and the United States blaming Iran. The fallout from the tragic incident is far from over as Russia’s decision to supply Syria with S-300 missile defence systems has led to condemnation from the US, worry from an Israeli government that seeks to continue to enhance its security partnership with Russia, joy from Syria and its traditional regional allies, while the true feelings of Russian policy markers regarding the S-300s are not fully known.
But just as timing is everything in comedy, the same seems to apply in tragic situations. Just hours before the tragic downing of the Il-20, President Vladimir Putin of Russia and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey reached an historic agreement to effectively divide Syria’s troubled Idlib Governorate into zones of influence with Turkey and its field allies taking the north while Damascus and its field and international allies are to take the south. This helped to avoid what some on the ground in Syria said would have otherwise been the largest single offensive of the entire war in Syria.
While the Russo-Turkish agreement on Idlib has been met with praise from all sides in public, it is no secret that the Russo-Turkish letter of the agreement goes against the wishes of many in the Syrian and Iranian “deep states”. Because of this, there was a clear and present risk that at least in the short term, the agreement would cause some consternation between Damascus and Tehran on one side and their partners in Moscow on the other. As it turned out, any short term behind the scenes and infowar disagreements were immediately sidelined due to the still controversial downing of the Il-20.
To put the delicate matter in the frankest possible terms: an otherwise “controversial” Idlib agreement was sidelined as a major regional talking point and a talking point about Russia’s more hysterical regional allies due to the even more sensational news of a Russian aircraft being downed in a friendly fire incident transpiring between two rivals (Syria and Israel) who are incidentally both partners of Russia, albeit in different ways.
And yet by remaining above the fray of the finger pointing in Latakia which even the US inevitably immersed itself into, Turkey has been able to promote the Idlib agreement with other interested parties are necessarily distracted by the Latakia issue. This became clear during Erdogan’s recent speech before the UN General Assembly which incidentally took place immediately after Donald Trump’s. In his speech, Erdogan touted the humanitarian achievements implicit in the Idlib agreement while calling on other nations to follow Turkey’s lead.
In this sense, while Erdogan conducted a generally deserved victory round at the UN, Syria, Israel and Russia continue to be mired in the fall out from the Il-20 shooting while the fact that the downing of the aircraft has at long last changed Moscow’s mind about planting S-300 defensive missile systems on Syrian soil, much to the chagrin of the US.
Taken in totality, Turkey not only looks like a supremely responsible party for not weighting into fights that are not its own, but while Russia, Israel, Syria and now the US squabble over events occurring in the eastern Mediterranean, Turkey is now in a strong position to follow through on its Idlib agreement mandate and pursue terror groups in Syria that are operational east of the Euphrates, including the radical Kurdish YPG/PKK.
While the status of Idlib is more or less settled around an eventual political framework which will inevitably grow from the current zones of influence enshrined in the Russo-Turkish agreement, the status of YPG/PKK occupied zones in eastern Syria remain the conflict’s last major open-ended issue. In spite of agreements between the US and Turkey to cooperate on neutralising YPG/PKK terrorists in the northern Syrian, the continued schisms between Ankara and Washington over a variety of interlinked issues ranging from US support of FETO (an item highlighted in Erdogan’s recent UN General Assembly speech) to threatened US sanctions over Turkey’s affirmed intention to purchase the Russian made S-400 missile defence systems.
Because of this, Turkey alongside its generally most consistent partner for security, Russia, will likely have to forge ahead with a plans to allow Turkish forces to neutralise terrorists in Syria’s north east, possibly with some future Idlib style agreement brokered with the US who regrettably continue to back YPG/PKK terrorists in the region. This appears to be the next logical political and party military front in the conflict now that the substantial matter of Idlib has been largely settled according to Turkey’s original goals.