The Russia–Turkey “Idlib Deal” and the American Response

EPC | 25 Jan 2020

A new conflict is emerging along the boundaries of the “fourth de-escalation zone” (Idlib and the area surrounding Aleppo). All indicators suggest that this is a multi-faceted conflict, given the complex situation and overlapping interests. Although Russia and Turkey declared a truce, it lasted for no more than two days. While a security meeting was being held between the head of Syrian intelligence, Ali Mamlouk, and his Turkish counterpart, Hakan Fidan, in Moscow, at the same time the US delegation, led by United States Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey, met with the Syrian opposition in Istanbul.

This paper sheds light on the most recent developments in the Syrian conflict in Idlib, examines the surrounding circumstances and the positions of the key players, and makes predictions for the near future.

Conditions of the truce and Turkey and Russia’s aims

Two days after the truce was announced, the forces of the Syrian regime launched a fierce campaign against sites held by opposition factions to the south and east of Idlib. Skirmishes between the two sides extended to the areas south and east of Aleppo, with Assad’s forces also clearly preparing to launch a campaign against Iranian militias in those areas. Their pretext for action was that Turkey was not attempting to control the organizations that were targeting civilian areas in Aleppo and Idlib, nor was it fulfilling its obligations under the Sochi Agreement to secure the M4 (Aleppo–Latakia) and M5 (Aleppo–Hamah) highways, which it was supposed to have secured by the end of 2018, and to resolve the conflict in Idlib, including finding a solution to the armed groups there, so that the Syrian government could reestablish sovereignty over the region.

The parties to the truce (Russia and Turkey) did not disclose the nature of the truce nor its geographic or time scope. Factions close to Turkey complained about this lack of clarity, which had led to confusion and tied their hands. None of the parties to the truce — Turkey, Russia, or the Syrian regime — have announced the collapse of the truce, despite the major breaches that have occurred since day one. This shows that they are keen not to cease communications with each other at this stage, given their tangled relationships, in particular that between Russia and Turkey.

Various indicators suggest that Russia agreed to the truce for immediate political and logistical reasons, namely the following:

  • Russia wanted to ensure the success of President Putin’s visit to Istanbul and to avoid disturbing the inauguration of the TurkStream gas pipline developed by Russia, Serbia, and Bulgaria. At the insistence of President Erdoğan, who contacted Putin two days before his arrival in Istanbul, Russia agreed to include the matter of the truce on their discussion schedule.
  • After obstructing the Security Council’s humanitarian aid project and receiving sharp criticism from Europe and the United States for its attacks, which led to the displacement of hundreds of thousands of citizens from Idlib, Russia wanted to appear to care for humanitarian concerns in the Syrian crisis.
  • Logistic considerations played a key role in Russia’s acceptance of the truce. It seems that Assad’s forces needed to rearrange their ranks, fortify the areas that they held, and update their military plans on the basis of new data, in particular the capacity of the opposition factions to withstand their attacks and the arrival of large numbers of fighters from the eastern Euphrates. Opposition sources confirmed that three Russian cargo planes carrying munitions landed recently at Humaymim Airport, which indicates that Russia is attempting to overcome the weapons shortage by providing weapons of some sort.
  • Russia wished to obstruct the Americans, who have demonstrated clear interest in the developments in Idlib and in Syria in general. On January 15, 2020, the US Embassy in Damascus tweeted that the continued aerial artillery shelling of citizens, health centers, and civilian facilities was a shameful act, condemned by the international community, and that, as long as such attacks continued, the United States was “prepared to take the strongest diplomatic and economic actions against the Assad regime and any State or individual that aids its brutal agenda.”

For Turkey, the main aim of the truce was to reduce the pressure on its proxies in Syria, who have suffered severe defeats and sudden collapses.

Mamlouk–Fidan meeting and the crystallization of the deal

Sources close to Damascus claim that the meeting between the head of the Syrian National Security Bureau, Major General Ali Mamlouk, and the head of the Turkish Intelligence Service, General Hakan Fidan, with Russian support in Moscow, was the fourth — not the first — meeting between the two figures. Unlike with previous meetings, however, Damascus announced that the meeting was to take place, given that the discussions were in the advanced stages and that the quasi-understandings reached in Moscow were awaiting a final decision before they could come into effect. At the same time, progress was being made by Syria and Turkey in their cooperation on security matters and on the ground in the northern regions covered by Turkey’s Operation Peace Spring and in the Idlib region, which had begun several months previously[1].

According to certain sources, the Syrian regime was keen to reconcile with Turkey on the provision that it returned to the 1998 understandings and that, as a goodwill gesture, it implemented the Sochi Agreement, which would restore international methods of control over the Assad regime and would find a solution to the problem of extremist organizations.

A key driver of the negotiations was Russia’s desire to rid Idlib of extremist organizations, in particular foreign organizations, “regardless of cost, on the basis of any solution that the Turks deem acceptable”, even if that involved “sending them all to Libya”. As for armed Syrian groups, in Russia’s view the only solution is for them to reconcile with the Syrian government, as has occurred in other regions. The Syrian delegation has not rejected the idea of gathering all armed Syrian groups opposed to reconciliation and confining them to an area along the northern Syrian border, under the control of the Russian military police[2].

Following the security meeting, it seems that a broad understanding was reached between the two parties. The details of the agreement have not yet been discussed, however, given the enormous complications inherent in such an agreement. Russia and the Assad regime have placed the ball in the Turkish half, having agreed to Turkey’s key demands, in particular regarding the dismantlement of the Kurdish forces (Syrian Democratic Forces). They have also hinted that they may agree to establish a safe zone in Idlib at the Turkish border to house displaced Syrians, in exchange for the main highways being handed over during the first stage of the truce, and to dismantle the Nusrah Front and the militant organizations Guardians of Religion and Turkistan Brigade, provided that this takes place within two months of the truce being agreed, according to information leaked about the meeting[3].

The core of the deal focuses on the establishment of a fourth safe zone similar to operations Euphrates Shield, Olive Branch, and Peace Spring, with cooperation between Russia and Turkey. Turkish Minister of Defense Khulusi Akar has stated that Turkey and Russia are seeking to establish a “safe zone” in Idlib, northwest Syria, where Syrians displaced by fighting can spend the winter.

Sources close to the Syrian regime have claimed that: “Deliberations are ongoing between Turkey and Russia which could lead Turkey to pull out of its observation points in southern Idlib, provided that the Syrian army advances and takes direct control over all the roads leading to Aleppo from Homs, Hamah, and Latakia mentioned in the Sochi Agreement, which Ankara has yet to implement.” However, these sources also pointed to a development of which the Assad regime appeared not yet to be aware, namely “the possibility that Turkish army will advance, occupying northern Idlib and establishing a new ‘safe zone’.” The sources also noted that a member of the Turkish security and foreign policy authority under the Turkish presidency had hinted that, if large-scale displacement continued, Turkey would be forced to consider establishing a safe zone in Idlib. They confirmed that, if such a zone were to be established, it would receive the usual Russian backing[4].

This coincided with measures taken by Turkey to encourage the leaders of opposition factions to attend an emergency meeting at the Atme military crossing to discuss the re-opening of international highways, following the discussions held in Moscow at which Ali Mamlouk had requested such action from his Turkish counterpart Hakan Fidan[5].

Importance of Idlib to Russia and Turkey

While Idlib may not be a high priority for Turkey, given the presence of extremist organizations that control the region, meaning that Turkey cannot exercise its own control over it, Idlib remains an important negotiating and bargaining chip for Turkey through which it can gain concessions from Russia and the Syrian regime. As Turkey clearly views Idlib as a quagmire, one in which it does not wish to be involved, it has thus far refused to engage in conflict against extremist organizations, as this would deplete the factions close to it.

Turkey has many regional and international preoccupations and interests, and is involved in many others issues, meaning that it must focus on matters that provide a greater political and economic return. In Syria, Turkey is focusing on the eastern Euphrates owing to its economic importance and its role in protecting Turkish national security. Turkey can negotiate to achieve better conditions in these areas by making concessions in Idlib. It also previously traded Aleppo and other areas in exchange for being allowed to establish a presence in Jarabulus and Afrin.

For Russia, conversely, controlling Idlib is a vital issue, as it will serve as evidence of its ability to control the whole of Syria. There is also no better base for negotiations with Turkey in order to end the Idlib dilemma that is preventing Assad from declaring a full military victory. This will happen if Russia is able to achieve a settlement based on its terms. In Russia’s view, Turkey has few options, given its other regional and international concerns and its international isolation resulting from its poor relations with countries in the region and in Europe.

Time is an important factor if Russia is to complete its mission in Syria, given the changes that are beginning to take place in the region, most importantly:

  • The United States may make a strong return to the region following the tensions with Iran. The US killing of Soleimani sent a clear message to all parties active in Syria.
  • The Caesar Act (which imposes heavy penalties on the Syrian regime and its supporters) poses both a complication and a threat for Russia. Russia is therefore seeking to take advantage of the 90-day deadline to implement the decision in order to change the status quo in Syria and present Assad as being in control of the entire Syrian territory, which may be enough to persuade President Trump to suspend or even repeal the Act.

Washington enters the crisis

In recent days, the United States has taken a great interest in the course of events in Syria, which means that an important shift in the status quo may occur in the near future. United States Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey has created a sort of operations room in Istanbul in order to follow developments in Syria:

  • Jeffrey and officials from the US Department of State have met with officials from the Ministry of Defense of the Syrian interim government, leaders of the Free Syrian Army, and representatives of the interim government. US officials have assured the Syrian political and military opposition that the United States is greatly interested in the events in Idlib, and will use its political and economic weight to stabilize the ceasefire and end the attacks by Russia and the Assad regime.
  • US officials have promised the Syrian interim government that they will provide humanitarian and health support to alleviate human suffering in Idlib Governorate. They also requested that the Syrian National Army invest greater resources in the Idlib conflict to prevent Russia and the Assad regime from making progress.
  • According to pro-opposition television network Syria TV, US officials have expressed the desire to strengthen relations with the Syrian National Army, and have requested that the leaders focus on organizing the Army and on maintaining its reputation as an institution capable of helping to protect the country once a political solution has been reached.
  • In order to protect its domestic and international reputation, officials have asked the Syrian National Army to prioritize the protection of Idlib Governorate and to avoid committing the same mistakes that occurred in the eastern Euphrates and northern Aleppo.
  • Syrian opposition sources have not ruled out the possibility that the United States may once again provide military support to opposition factions. The United States may resort to this option if, after several months, Russia and the Assad regime have not responded to the political and economic pressures nor made a commitment to cease their campaign against Idlib and to work in favor of a political transition[6].

Jeffrey has visited Saudi Arabia, which has been suggested may be part of efforts to coordinate key players in Syria’s future. In Riyadh, he discussed efforts to enhance security in Syria. Saudi Arabia is leading efforts to amend the balance of power among the Syrian opposition, in particular the negotiating body and the Syrian National Coalition.

In a statement, the US Department of State said that Jeffrey’s visit, which lasted from 9 to 13 January, focused on discussing issues of shared concern, including the current situation in northeast Syria and the implementation of Security Council resolution 2254 (2015) aimed at settling the Syrian conflict.

For its part, on January 17 the Turkish presidency issued a statement saying that its spokesperson, Ibrahim Kalin, agreed with US National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien on the importance of upholding the ceasefire in Idlib. According to the statement, they also discussed the memorandum of understanding on Idlib concluded by Russia and Turkey in Sochi.

The Turkish military chief of staff, General Yaşar Güler, also met with his American counterpart, Mark Milley, in Brussels on the margins of the NATO Chiefs of Defence Session held on January 14. In a statement, Colonel DeDe Halfhill, spokesperson for the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that: “On Tuesday, the US Chief of Staff met with his Turkish counterpart in Brussels, where they discussed the security situation in Syria and the importance of Turkey–US cooperation in the region.”

Catalysts for the collapse of the deal

  • The parties have failed to agree on the boundaries of the safe zone. It seems that Russia has not been able to force the regime to agree on this matter, as the regime has delivered pointed messages to the Russians through the media loyal to it that it opposes the deal.
  • Erdoğan saw the announcement of the security meeting as an attempt to embarrass him in front of the Syrian opposition and the United States. This has pushed Erdoğan to threaten the Syrian regime with action if it fails to implement the truce. Turkey was forced to confirm to opposition factions that the aim of the security meeting was to confirm the truce, and not to discuss political issues[7].
  • The Russians convinced the Turks that they would be able to resolve the Kurdish issue, and stated, during the security meeting in Moscow, that the United States would soon leave the region and that the Kurds would be forced to comply. However, the Americans’ powerful return to the region and the reinforcements sent to the eastern Euphrates has made Turkey realize that Russia has nothing to offer them in this regard.
  • The Americans have re-entered the fray. While this puts pressure on Turkey to prevent the deal with Russia from being completed, it also bolsters Turkey’s weak position vis-a-vis Russia.
  • Iran has also entered the field, and has reignited conflict in the area west of Aleppo, having brought military reinforcements from Dayr az Zawr, Hamah, and Latakia to participate in the conflicts. This area is one of the most important areas of Iranian influence in Syria, and Iran is attempting to prove that the absence of the leader of its Revolutionary Guard, Qassem Soleimani, will not affect its plans in Syria.
  • Russia is keen to achieve results on the ground in Idlib before the United States can change the balance of power in favor of the opposition and deliver important military reinforcements. Russia has realized that this is a possibility as the United States will not allow it to achieve a final victory or to single out a political solution.

Possible scenarios

Scenario 1: Russia and Turkey seek to apply the terms of the deal through force and conflict. All indications suggest that Russia is determined to reach the international highways whatever the cost. Russia’s preparations, including the reinforcements compiled from Iranian militias and the forces of the Assad regime and the preparations at Humaymim base, indicate that Russia is determined to achieve its aims as soon as possible, in anticipation of possible US efforts to provide opposition factions with anti-tank weaponry.

Conversely, Turkey has begun to seriously consider establishing a safe zone in northern Idlib. It is in contact with the US administration and with European countries (France, the UK, and Germany) to that end, having called on them to put pressure on Russia and the Assad regime to cease their attacks on opposition-held areas, as the attacks on western Aleppo will drive hundreds of thousands of displaced persons across the Turkish border.

This is the most likely scenario, given the lack of agreement between Russia and Turkey. Iranian interests are also likely to spark conflict, and the United States is keen to obstruct Russia’s plans.

Scenario 2: Russian and pro-Assad forces are exhausted by long-running conflict. The areas of conflict have a high urban density, and opposition factions can use this to their advantage in ambushes and street clashes, provided that American supplies manage to reach them and Washington supports them logistically. This scenario is made more likely by the fact that the forces in the region are well trained and better organized than those that Russia and its allies faced in southern Idlib, where Russia was unable to storm Ma’arrat an Nu’man or exert control over it, despite having bombed the area for more than a month.

Scenario 3: Russia returns to its policy of “slow nibbling”. This has become one of its favorite policies, as it allows Russia to achieve its goals, including weakening the opposition factions and gradually destroying their capabilities, while avoiding international criticism. This scenario is supported by the fact that Russia has continued to declare its adherence to the deal and has not yet said anything to the contrary. In this scenario, its amassed forces may be used to place pressure on Turkey and the factions loyal to Turkey in order to force them to gradually withdraw from the areas under their control, thereby ultimately implementing the provisions of the Sochi Agreement on handing over the international highways to the Assad regime.

Of these three scenarios, the first scenario is the most likely, given Russia’s need to achieve victory in Idlib and the area surrounding Aleppo, and the importance of that victory to regaining control over the M4 and M5 international highways and securing the Aleppo security zone. Russia is keen to complete these tasks, as it believes that the US return to Syria will bring about changes detrimental to its Syrian project. On the other hand, given the increase in the number of displaced persons, Turkey will use these developments as an opportunity to establish a safe zone in Idlib on the pretext that it is securing shelters to protect displaced persons from the harsh winter conditions. It is clear from the statements delivered by Turkish officials that Turkey intends to pursue this course of action.

 

References

[1] Mousa Aasi, Mamlouk–Fidan understandings await green light from Turkey, 180post, January 14, 2020.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Saheib Angarini, The Idlib truce: fragility does not prevent investment, Al-Akhbar, January 13, 2020.

[4] Mohammed Nourredin, The fourth Turkish campaign in Syria, Al-Akhbar, January 16, 2019.

[5] Ankara summons faction leaders to emergency meeting at Atme military crossing, Jesr Press, January 15, 2020.

[6] US meetings with the opposition: attention focused on Idlib, Syria TV, January 17, 2019.

[7] Turkey informs factions of outcome of security meeting with Assad regime in Moscow, Syria Call, January 16, 2020.

 

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