Erdogan’s Sochi deal plays into Assad’s hands
Much has made much of a deal between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin over Syria’s north-western Idlib province.
Turkey’s government-controlled media reacted with near euphoria, reflecting relief that an anticipated Syrian government offensive against the rebel-held enclave had been forestalled. One columnist suggested that Erdogan, for whom good news has been scarce lately, be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Elsewhere, many wondered if the deal had done more than buy Idlib, and Turkey, a temporary reprieve.
Idlib is occupied by a fractious array of armed groups. Many have little in common besides their opposition to Syria’s government, partly explaining why they seem to spend as much time fighting each other as their common enemy.
Turkey has troops in this chaotic environment. They were deployed under the terms of a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran to man a dozen or so outposts along Idlib’s border with neighbouring Syrian provinces, providing a barrier separating the rebels from Syrian government forces.
Under the terms of the Putin-Erdogan deal announced September 17 in Sochi, Russia, Turkey is tasked with establishing a demilitarised buffer zone 15-25km wide along Idlib’s border by the middle of October. This requires the removal of heavy weapons from the zone, along with what Putin referred to as “radically minded” rebels. In return, Russia will prevent the Syrian government from undertaking an offensive in the heavily populated region.
So far so good. Turkey temporarily averted a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib, one that would likely have caused hundreds of thousands of refugees and rebels to flee towards the Turkish border.
Beyond that, it is hard to see how the deal serves anyone’s interests better than it does those of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Assad and his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies have followed, largely successfully, a strategy that involves corralling their enemies into successively fewer and smaller enclaves.
It is easy to understand why they have done this. Although it concentrates their opponents’ strength, this allows the overstretched and undermanned government forces to reclaim areas vacated by the rebels at low cost and concentrate their superior firepower on fewer and more target-rich environments. The strategy plays to the Syrian military’s strengths while concealing its weaknesses.
The Sochi deal gives every appearance of furthering this strategy. It comes as no surprise that the Syrian government reacted positively. Rebel forces will, assuming Turkey is at least partially successful in fulfilling its side of the bargain, be concentrated into a smaller area in Idlib, making them easier targets if the Syrian government moves onto the offensive.
The deal is so riddled with ambiguities that Turkey will find it near impossible to uphold its terms. Turkey’s understanding of what constitute “radically minded” rebels likely differs from that of Russia’s, never mind the Syrian government’s view. Unless Turkey can evict all rebel forces from the buffer zone within the short time frame, fingers will point at whatever groups remain in the zone. It is probable that the groups most averse to eviction from the proposed zone will be those most obviously “radically minded.”
So the Sochi deal, for all the praise it received in the Turkish media, tasks Turkey with clearing an area of Syrian territory of rebels that is liable to be reoccupied by the Syrian government at a time of its choosing and at minimal cost.
If it does come to a fight between Idlib’s rebels and the Syrian Army, the deal has put the rebel groups, some of which Turkey has nurtured, into a more vulnerable position. This undermines Turkey’s leverage in Syria.
Turkey naturally hopes it does not come to this but it is not clear what it can do to change the calculus in the time it has bought. If indications in Turkish media are anything to go by, Ankara would like to divert Damascus’s attention to areas of Syria east of the Euphrates under the control of Kurdish militias backed by the United States.
Turkey has long viewed these groups as the gravest threat to its national security emanating from Syria. It perhaps hopes the Syrian government and its allies can be convinced that the threat those same Kurdish groups pose to Syrian territorial integrity is greater than that posed by Idlib’s rebels, not to mention other areas of Syria the Turkish Army occupied in 2016 and 2018 .
Despite encouraging sounds from Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, it is hard to see how events in Sochi can alter circumstances that resulted in the Syrian government prioritising the recapture of Idlib over areas of Syria it does not control.
The Sochi deal smells more of Turkey’s desperation to avert, if only for now, an influx of refugees and rebel fighters, many of them radicals, and less of long-term progress towards the realisation of Turkey’s goals in Syria.
In the words of its former Foreign Minister Yasar Yakis, Turkey has agreed to “do the dirty work in Idlib.” The Syrian government’s dirty work that is. In the zero-sum game of the Syrian conflict Turkey’s loss is the Syrian government’s gain.