After three months of military hostilities and heightened tensions in Idlib, Syria, between the Syrian army on the one hand, and Turkish forces supported by pro-Turkish armed and terrorist groups, on the other, Russian President Vladimir Putin received his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Thursday, 5 March, to work out a deal in order to avoid a major Russian-Turkish confrontation in Syria.
The Russian-Turkish summit succeeded in containing the conflict in the northwest of Syria and decided on a ceasefire, that went into effect at midnight Friday, 6 March, along the lines already established in the Sochi Agreement between Russia and Turkey signed in September 2018. The two sides also agreed on joint Russian-Turkish patrols along the M-4, a strategic highway that links Aleppo with the Syrian port city of Latakia on the Mediterranean. The joint operation will be effective Friday, 13 March, along a security corridor six kilometres north and south of the highway.
The ceasefire agreement saved the day, temporarily, for the Russians, the Syrians and the Turks. It was mainly a tactical move to avoid largescale military operations by the Turkish and the Syrian armies. In fact, the main Russian concern was threefold. The most important concern has been to safeguard the military advance of the Syrian army in Idlib province in the last three months, thus precluding a major counter-attack by the armed and terrorist groups battling the Syrian government. The second was to prevent a direct military showdown between Moscow and Ankara in case the latter decides to push back Syrian forces in Idlib. The third is to prevent a significant rollback of Russian-Turkish relations. The ceasefire agreement reached in Moscow is testimony to the resilience of these relations for both sides, despite major differences centred around two Arab flashpoints; namely, Syria and Libya.
The irony is that the ceasefire was negotiated with the absence of the Syrian government on whose territories the Moscow agreement is supposed to be carried out. At the conclusion of the Russian-Turkish summit, President Putin called President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria to inform him of the details of the agreement. It is true that the ceasefire would protect the Syrian army from involvement in an open war with the Turkish army. Still, the fact of the matter remains that Russia is the final arbiter of the fate of Syria.
The Moscow agreement reaffirmed the territorial integrity and independence of Syria, a reaffirmation that implies that the presence of Turkish forces in Syria is temporary. But the Turkish president in his remarks in a joint press conference with President Putin did not give the impression that his forces would withdraw from northern Syria anytime soon. On the contrary, he has emphasised that Turkey reserves the right to deal with any violation of the ceasefire, and that the 12 Turkish observation posts in northwest Syria would remain in the context of the Sochi Agreement of 2018.
Some observers would concede that the Moscow agreement was a win-win scenario for both Russia and Turkey in Syria. It is true that it saved the day for the time being. However, the ceasefire remains tenuous, even though the main protagonists have showed little interest in violating it until now. The major challenge that lies ahead is that the Syrian government is determined, in the medium-term, to take back all of Idlib province. The Russians do back the Syrian plan, but the main question for both Syria and Russia is how to go about it while not provoking the Turkish president to the extent of him sending his forces to keep the Syrians from achieving one of their basic strategic goals of regaining all Syrian territories in the north. When would Russia pressure the Turks to withdraw from Syria, and how? At present, it is a safe bet to say that Moscow sees the status quo in Syria, politically and militarily, as serving its larger strategic goals in the Middle East.
Another major challenge facing the Syrians and the Russians in maintaining the ceasefire is what to do with the terrorist groups armed, supplied and protected by the Turkish army in Idlib. Russian officials, in defending the ceasefire, made it clear that fighting terrorist groups in Idlib remains an objective for the Syrian army. It is doubtful that Turkey would stand idle if the Syrian army would resume its operations to rout out these terrorist groups from their last stronghold in Syria. In fact, this could prove to be the most complicated question in the months to come. It is a battle that everyone sees coming, but prefers not to bring up under present circumstances. The Moscow agreement of 5 March has just postponed the final reckoning.
The ceasefire would prove beneficial from a tactical point of view to the Syrian army after fierce battles with Turkish forces that preceded the Moscow summit last Thursday. It was a first encounter on the battlefield, and the Syrians will fortify their present positions, in addition to sending reinforcements in Idlib so that they are better-equipped and better-armed next time. A special point of concern is how to neutralise Turkish armed drones. It is reported that the Russians and the Iranians have provided the Syrian army with anti-drone missiles — much-needed assistance that explains the success of Syrian forces in downing seven Turkish drones before 5 March.
Moscow has succeeded in saving Ankara from deeper involvement in Syria that would have major political repercussions for the Turkish government within Turkey and without. The Moscow agreement has permitted the Turks to save face and not carry out the threat that the Turkish president had proffered that if the Syrian forces didn’t pull back to their positions prior to their successful military offensive in Idlib, and before the end of February, he would launch a major attack to push them back. After incurring a loss of 33 soldiers on 27 February in Syria, plus growing losses among Turkish military “advisers,” in Tripoli, Libya, President Erdogan needed the ceasefire agreement badly.
From a strategic point of view, the Moscow agreement comes in the framework of the consolidation of the military gains that the Syrian army has been scoring in its goal of recapturing all the territories it had lost in the first phase of the Syrian conflict. The ceasefire will hold till the next Syrian offensive to chase Turkish-backed armed and terrorist groups from Idlib. The Russians will have to negotiate another agreement with the Turks not to interfere when this offensive occurs. Will the Turks oblige? That remains to be seen.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly