After a tense phone call over a week ago that reportedly devolved at one point into a shouting match between Putin and Erdogan, the two leaders met in Moscow and agreed to another ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib province. The talks lasted for 6 hours last Thursday and concluded with agreement to a ceasefire and the establishment of a buffer zone, along the M4 highway, to be patrolled jointly by Turkey and Russia. Additionally, the “rebels” are supposed to evacuate from south of the highway.
Thursday’s agreement is considered an “additional protocol” to the Sochi Agreement of 2018. The ceasefire took effect on Friday morning and the joint patrols are due to start on March 15th.
Scott Ritter describes the reality on the ground after about a week of clashes between the Syrian Army and Turkish forces – the latter of which received no substantive support from Washington/NATO, which motivated the talks between Erdogan and Putin:
This [Turkish] operation soon fizzled; not only was the Turkish advance halted in its tracks, but the Syrian Army, supported by Hezbollah and pro-Iranian militias, were able to recapture much of the territory lost in the earlier fighting. Faced with the choice of either escalating further and directly confronting Russian forces, or facing defeat on the battlefield, Erdogan instead flew to Moscow.
The new additional protocol, which entered into effect at midnight Moscow time on Friday, March 6, represents a strategic defeat for Erdogan and the Turkish military which, as NATO’s second-largest standing armed force, equipped and trained to the highest Western standards, should have been more than a match for a rag-tag Syrian Army, worn down after nine years of non-stop combat. The Syrian armed forces, together with its allies, however, fought the Turks to a standstill. Moreover, the anti-Assad fighters that had been trained and equipped by the Turks proved to be a disappointment on the battlefield.
One of the major reasons behind the Turkish failure was the fact that Russia controlled the air space over Idlib, denying the Turks the use of aircraft, helicopters and (except for a single 48-hour period) drones, while apparently using their own aircraft, together with the Syrian Air Force, to pummel both the Turkish military and their allied anti-Assad forces (though neither side has officially confirmed the Russians bombing the Turks – that would be a disaster for the talks). In the end, the anti-Assad fighters were compelled to take shelter within so-called ‘Observation posts’– heavily fortified Turkish garrisons established under the Sochi Agreement, intermingling with Turkish forces to protect themselves from further attack. [Turkey’s] Operation Spring Shield turned out to be a resounding defeat for the Turks and their allies.
Forgive my cynicism but this sounds reminiscent of previous agreements that have broken down. The Turks did not live up to their obligations under the Sochi Agreement to remove jihadists such as terrorist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS aka Al Qaeda/Al Nusra re-branded) from established de-escalation zones. Turkey’s failure to do this prompted the Syrian Army to remove the terrorists (“rebels”) themselves. According to Ritter, the additional protocol just agreed on reiterates the goal of pushing out the terrorists but does not elaborate on how it is to be achieved.
As military analyst Moon of Alabama points out:
This ceasefire is unlikely to hold over a longer period. But it brings a useful pause for the Syrian army that will allow it to recover a bit and to take care of its men and equipment.
This for now also ends the Turkish threat to attack the Syrian army and to reconquer all areas it had liberated over the last months.
Erdogan, who had made many demands, saw none of them fulfilled. The agreement will cost him political points within his party.
So it sounds like Erdogan took a big risk with his blustering action in Syria and ended up laying an egg. But I doubt Erdogan is suddenly going to give up the ghost rather than continue to find ways to throw sand in the gears of Syria’s push to regain full control over their sovereign territory.
A Redlines interview by Anya Parampil with Iranian professor, Mohammad Marandi, who just got back from Idlib, gives an update from on the ground as well as a good discussion of the history of the Syrian war.
For those who like symbolism – and have a propensity for Schadenfreude, here is a photo of Erdogan’s visit to Moscow and the decor he was subjected to during part of his meeting with Putin – courtesy of Russian historian and geopolitical analyst Nina Byzantina. (Note: you will only be able to see this image if you go to this post on my blog, it will not show up in the email version of this post – NB).
Today, Putin held his meeting with Erdogan underneath Lanceray’s sculpture Crossing the Balkans. The sculpture depicts victorious Russians in the Russo-Turkish War 1877-8, which resulted in the independence or autonomy for Ottoman-occupied Serbia+Montenegro, Romania, Bulgaria. 🤣 pic.twitter.com/zuASGL0wfu— Nina ☦️ Byzantina (@NinaByzantina) March 5, 2020
In response to Putin’s January call for a summit of the 5 permanent UN Security Council members to discuss peace and other global issues of importance, France and China had quickly announced their receptivity. The US and UK, however, had been mum.
Last Wednesday, Russian news agency TASS reported that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov confirmed that president Trump has now agreed to the summit, which might take place at the UN on the sidelines of a General Assembly meeting in New York. Izvestia reported the following on March 4:
According to Lavrov, besides the challenging issue of nuclear disarmament, the parties are expected to discuss regional conflicts, new challenges and threats such as international terrorism, drug trafficking and other forms of organized crime, as well as human trafficking, migration issues and new technologies, which could slip out of control and pose a serious threat to humanity.
It’s easier to arrange this meeting of the five UNSC permanent members in New York, said Pavel Podlesny, Head of the Center for Russian-American Relations at the Institute for the US and Canadian Studies. “China and France backed the idea to meet a long time ago and now the US has agreed, and therefore Britain has no other option. It’s easier to hold the discussion in New York ahead of a session of the UN General Assembly as Donald Trump has offered,” he noted.