Sochi agreement has Turkey gain time and lose ground

The Turkish public is poorly informed about how arduous the task is that has been set by the Sochi agreement for the country.
Sunday 23/09/2018
In a tight corner. A Russian bodyguard stands ready as President Vladimir Putin (2nd R) gestures while speaking to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) during their meeting in Sochi, on September 17. (AP)
In a tight corner. A Russian bodyguard stands ready as President Vladimir Putin (2nd R) gestures while speaking to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) during their meeting in Sochi, on September 17. (AP)

However it is looked at the agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is a turning point in Turkey’s Syria policy.

The agreement, completed September 17 by Putin and Erdogan when they met in Sochi, Russia, shattered the illusion that Turkey has a stakeholder role in the region’s future. The 10-point arrangement made a splash because it contained concrete objectives and set the clock ticking for Idlib by offering a clear timetable.

That plan allows Turkey to “strengthen” its 12 observation posts, establish a 15-20km-wide demilitarised zone along the Turkish-Syrian border and have all warring sides withdrawing from the area by October 10. Controls will be jointly enforced by Turkish and Russian forces and security for two arterial highways — the M4, which connects Aleppo and Latakia, and the M5, which links Aleppo and Hama — is to be complete by year-end.

One question looms larger than all others, however: Will Turkey be able to disarm jihadist groups — some 30,000 fighters, all armed to the teeth — by the deadline? What would happen if this is accomplished and what happens if not?

Undoubtedly, by signing on to the Sochi agreement, Turkey has chosen tactics above strategy. Stuck in a foreign policy impasse, Turkey has been retreating from regime-changer role on Syria. But Ankara may have only postponed the Idlib issue, perhaps until its next tactical move.

More important, the Erdogan administration may have bitten off more than it can chew. A careful reading of the Sochi agreement shows that, while Putin invested in a long-term plan to maintain — and even enhance — control over Syria’s future, his Turkish counterpart assumed almost all the responsibility for removing armed jihadists from the area. It is a binding contract for Ankara with a clear deadline and it only adds to the economic and political stresses faced by Turkey.

“By agreeing to hold back the military operation against the jihadists, Russia does not lose much because the attack is not cancelled indefinitely, only postponed until if and when it becomes necessary,” Yasar Yakis, a former foreign minister of Turkey, told Ahval Online. He added: “Turkey is being asked to do the dirty work in Idlib.”

Yakis argued that Turkey faces several risks. It is not easy to distinguish between radical jihadists and moderate opposition activists. The factions that are not persuaded to disarm will be antagonised and may turn against Turkey. Finally, asked Yakis, “to what extent can one rely on the word of a terrorist who says he has decided to lay down arms?”

The Turkish public is poorly informed about how arduous the task is that has been set by the Sochi agreement for the country. Approximately 60% of Idlib is under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which Turkey recently designated a terrorist group. There are areas controlled by smaller jihadist factions.

If disarmament is achieved, which is a huge challenge, the compliant jihadist groups will have little reason to stay in the area because they will fear retaliation from others. They will have to turn to their de facto allies inside Turkey, which were emboldened by the regime-change policy on Syria. The ideological kinship remains strong enough to threaten Turkey’s internal security, already fragile because of social polarisation.

If Turkey secretly intends to use disarmed jihadist groups against Kurdish-controlled areas, that, too, is doomed to backfire. It would run counter to both Russia’s and the United States’ interests.

If Turkey fails to secure the jihadist groups’ compliance, Russia will have reason to intervene, as well as the Syrian government. A likely scenario is that Turkey will have to ask for a postponement once more.

Some observers argue that the best approach for Turkey would be to share all its intelligence with Russia and Syria and allow them to deal with the jihadists while it focuses on minimising the humanitarian tragedy with international cooperation. If the Idlib operation is inevitable, Ankara will face the same dilemmas now or later.

In case of failure, however, Turkey will be solely responsible. This will be particularly true if jihadist attacks against Syrian and Russian forces continue.

In fact, the Sochi agreement indirectly shuffles the responsibility for Russian military posts onto Turkey. The M4 and M5 commitments signal Turkey’s nod to what Damascus expects in securing transport arteries from Aleppo to the south and west of Syria.

The Sochi agreement adds to Ankara’s strain and reveals the despair that permeates its regional policy.

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