Russia and Turkey have reached a new agreement on the situation in Syrian Idlib in Moscow on 5 March 2020. Yet the items of the Agreement declared at the end of the talks entailed a number of question marks on its fate and applicability, particularly that the Agreement was meant to supplement the Sochi Agreement, which was signed on 17 September 2018 and which the parties failed to implement. That failure was the direct reason for the outbreak of the recent round of conflict.

An ambiguous and provisional agreement

The Agreement reached between the Russian and Turkish parties in Moscow, called the “Additional Protocol to the Sochi Memorandum of Understanding on Stabilization of the Situation in the Idlib De-escalation Area of 17 September 2018”, comprised the following three main points:

1. Halting all military actions along the line of contact in the Idlib de-escalation area starting from March 6.

2. Establishing a security corridor 6 kilometres deep to the north and 6 kilometres deep to the south of the M4 highway (Aleppo-Latakia), with the specific parameters for the functioning of the security corridor to be agreed upon between the Russian and Turkish Defence Ministries within seven days.

3. Launching joint Turkish-Russian patrols on March 15, along the M4 highway between the town of Tronba (2 kilometres of Saraqeb) and the town of Ain al-Havr.

The texts of the Agreement raise a number of questions with regard to the available guarantees for the continuation of the ceasefire, the possibility of reaching a detailed agreement on the security corridor, whether the corridor was a buffer zone which would consequently require the withdrawal of the heavy weapons of the opposition to a distance of 12 kilometres, and whether this area will be occupied by the forces of the Syrian regime or will stay under the control of lightly-armed opposition factions. Besides, which factions will operate this area given that it is already under the control of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, Organization for the Liberation of the Levant) which is dominated by the al-Nusra Front, and what are the accurate criteria to measure the extent of party compliance, especially that the current mechanisms (the Hmeymim Reconciliation Centre and the Turkish Ministry of Defence) are biased, subjective and non-reliable to observe the implementation of a complicated deal in view of the absence of trust among its parties?

In addition, the Agreement has marginalized a set of issues that were brought forward by the recent round of conflict and were at the core of the negotiations between the Russian and Turkish teams at the pre-Agreement stage, namely:

a) The fate of the Turkish observation posts, given that more than ten of these are surrounded by regime troops and their Iranian allies, especially that the Agreement has annulled the Sochi arrangements by confirming the new de facto situation, thus terminating the function of the observation posts;

b) The Agreement did not mention the safe zone demanded by Turkey to house the refugees. Does the omission imply that the two parties agree, without declaration, that the areas controlled by Turkey are the Safe Zone?

c) Withdrawal by regime forces from the areas outside the Sochi Agreement which Turkey has insisted on re-gaining, together with the status of the hundreds of thousands of displaced people; the Agreement used a general language without mentioning details or mechanisms for the return of the displaced people and guaranteeing their safety;

d) Unlike all previous deals, the Agreement does not refer to its provisional nature or what follows it, which means the establishment of Turkish troops in Idlib and recognition of their presence.

This may be the reason for stating that the efforts made by both delegations focused primarily on the prevention of the situation slipping into a military confrontation between the Russian and Turkish sides, according to Andrei Paklanov, Deputy Chairman of the Board of the Association of Russian Diplomats. That is why officials of both parties unsurprisingly described the Agreement as “provisional” since it ignored agreeing on the critical issues that brought about the tensions, attempting instead to strike a balance between the field gains achieved by both parties to the conflict.

Obstacles preventing the implementation of the Agreement

  • The security area divides the opposition areas into two halves, exposing them security- and fire-wise to Russia and regime troops, which is unlikely to be accepted by the opposition factions, particularly HTS. Besides, the Agreement entails the surrender of the area south of the M4 highway to the regime, thus establishing the new de facto situation;
  • The security corridor extends for 55 kilometres and passes through large cities. Estimates indicate that the area of the corridor constitutes 20 per cent of the areas controlled by the opposition, and the status of the population in those cities is still unclear;
  • Russia granted Turkey a grace period of one week to evacuate the corridor by the factions, including radical ones, which seems unrealistic;
  • The Agreement grants both sides, Turkey and the Assad regime, the right to respond to provocations and attacks by the other side, without specifying a mechanism to resolve or contain disputes, which means that the Agreement will end with the first disagreement started by any of the parties;
  • The presence of parties not interested in the enforcement of the Agreement and the ceasefire, such as the radical organizations, including the HTS which opposed the Agreement, in addition to Iranian militias at the other side which mobilize on a large scale in the region;
  • The dynamics that led to the collapse of past agreements remain unchanged; the regime still insists on regaining control of the whole of Idlib, and radical organizations maintain their strong presence;
  • The lack of confidence characterizing Russian-Turkish relations, which was established during the round of conflict. Although both parties reached the Agreement referred to, both parties continue their military build-up;
  • Contradictory interpretations by both parties in light of the ambiguous and general nature of the Agreement texts.

Motives of both parties in striking the deal

Russian motives in reaching the Agreement can be explained as follows:

  • Russia has achieved its goals, namely the maintenance of the Astana format and Turkey’s continuous role as a cover for it in the face of the campaign launched by western countries against the Astana agreements;
  • Establishment of the regime-controlled areas in the Aleppo and Idlib countrysides, and forcing Turkey to accept that reality;
  • Shifting the crisis to the areas controlled by the opposition and Turkey, based on Russia’s belief that Turkey will not be able to fulfil its obligation and will clash with the opposition;
  • Putin does not want his tough position towards Turkey to constitute an opportunity to create a western position against him, so he is in agreement with the incoherent and divided position of western countries towards Russia;
  • Putin’s awareness, based on his experience from the Syrian war, that truces weaken the enthusiasm of factions, particularly to mobilize fighters, and embarrass their combat plans.

Turkish motives are as follows:

  • Turkey’s awareness that return to the borders of the Sochi agreement of 2018 is impossible, and that agreeing to Russia’s offer will prevent it from sustaining bigger losses in the future;
  • Turkey’s belief that the United States and the NATO will not support it in this war, that events are developing rapidly, and that there is no time to reach an understanding over a particular format for cooperation with the West;
  • The Agreement has legalized Turkish presence in Idlib through recognition of Turkey’s right to respond if its soldiers come under attack.

Possible scenarios for the future situation in Idlib

1- Failure to implement the Agreement and return to conflict, since the Agreement entails problems that are difficult to resolve: it brings Turkey under obligations that it cannot fulfil, especially with regard to the security corridor which was rejected by the radical opposition factions because of the risk it entails on their positions and status. Iran also appears as an obstructing party to an agreement for which it was not consulted despite the significant losses it sustained. This scenario is the more realistic, especially that the success of the Agreement and its enforcement are subject to a limited time span with obligations that Turkey does not seem to be capable of fulfilling.

2- Delay in implementation and further grace periods to Turkey by Russia, similar to what took place during the implementation of the buffer zone mentioned in the Sochi Agreement of 2018. Russia may be forced to accept this situation because of its desire to avoid direct clash with Turkey and its, i.e. Russia’s, preference to await the slowdown of the wave of western criticism against it. In that case, Russia may, after a limited period, resort to taking over the opposition-controlled areas south of the M4 highway, which are to be supervised by Russia according to the Agreement, through a swift operation that does not raise much criticism.

3- The outbreak of a conflict between Turkey and the radical factions, especially that the opposition factions accuse the HTS of surrendering most of the areas controlled by the Assad forces without a fight, in addition to accusing it of constituting an excuse to Russia for taking over the rest of the opposition-controlled areas of Idlib.

Conclusion

 The common Russian-Turkish interest of refraining from escalating the conflict in Idlib into a direct confrontation between both sides has imposed the need to reach a “provisional and non-comprehensive” ceasefire, which amounts to an establishment of the status quo on the ground. However, the Agreement is not expected to last given that it contains the reasons of its collapse, in addition to the significant discrepancy between the objectives of the Turkish and Russian sides and, by extension, the Syrian parties.

 

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