Turkey and Russia play for time, try to avoid risks

Both Turkey and Russia played down delays in implementing the Sochi agreement.
Sunday 21/10/2018
Syrian rebel fighters walk through a trench at the front line facing regime areas in the southern countryside of Aleppo, on October 14. (AFP)
On thin ice. Syrian rebel fighters walk through a trench at the front line facing regime areas in the southern countryside of Aleppo, on October 14. (AFP)

ISTANBUL - Turkey and Russia appear determined to avoid new tensions over the Syrian rebel-held province of Idlib even though jihadists refused to leave the region in line with an agreement between Ankara and Moscow.

Analysts said both sides have reasons to play for time in Idlib. Turkey, which is housing more than 3 million Syrians who fled the fighting, is anxious to avoid another influx of refugees. Russia is being careful not to anger Turkey because it needs its cooperation to end the Syrian war.

This confluence of interests could prevent a major battle in Idlib but the situation in the area with 3 million civilians and tens of thousands of battle-hardened fighters and ringed by government forces itching to retake the province poses risks.

Turkey, which backs several rebel groups in Idlib, and Russia, the most important partner of the Syrian government, could face a situation in which local tensions spiral out of control.

An accord reached by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in September said Turkey should convince all “radical fighters” to leave a buffer zone on the border between Idlib and regions held by the Syrian government by October 15. The deadline passed without fighters of al-Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham withdrawing from the demilitarised zone.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had not noted any jihadists leaving the demilitarised area by October 16 and there were reports of sporadic fighting in and around the buffer zone. Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told Agence France-Presse the refusal of extremists to withdraw constituted a risk. “The jihadists not withdrawing gives the [Syrian] regime and Russia an excuse to carry out a military operation at least within the demilitarised zone,” Abdel Rahman said.

The government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has vowed to have Idlib, the last major area held by rebels, under his control, says it is ready to attack if the Turkish-Russian deal breaks down. However, Damascus cannot act without the green light from Moscow.

“We have to wait for the Russian reaction. Russia is monitoring and following the situation,” Syria Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said. He implied a military assault was still on the table. “We have to wait but, at the same time, our troops are ready around Idlib,” he said.

US Syria envoy James Jeffrey, during a visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Ankara, said the Russian-Turkish accord had stopped the fighting in Idlib for now. “It has frozen the conflict not only there but the conflict is also frozen essentially everywhere else,” Jeffrey said.

Both Turkey and Russia played down delays in implementing the Sochi agreement. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said there was “no problem with the withdrawal of heavy weapons” from the Idlib buffer zone. “I know that Russia is happy with the steps taken so far.”

Cavusoglu said the process of opening two major highways that run through Idlib and are important for the Syrian government would “continue until the end of the year.”

In Moscow, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was satisfied with the way Turkey was acting to get radicals out of the Idlib buffer zone. “The memorandum is being implemented and the military is satisfied with the way the Turkish side is working,” he said, adding that “one cannot expect everything to go smoothly with absolutely no glitches.”

Orhan Gafarli, an analyst at the Ankara Policy Centre think-tank, said Turkey and Russia were keen to “maintain the current balance” in Idlib. Russia was focused on its main aim in Syria, which was to end the war and prepare a new constitution for the country, Gafarli said.

Russia entered the conflict in 2015, helping Assad’s government win back much of Syria’s territory from rebels and establishing itself as a power broker in the Middle East as the footprint of the United States became lighter. Now Russia wants the fighting to stop. For months, the Kremlin has been stressing the need for a lasting political settlement that would keep Assad in power.

A Russia-brokered Syrian National Dialogue Congress meeting in January in Sochi. Russia, led to an agreement to set up a constitutional committee that includes members from the Assad government, the opposition and independents with the help of the United Nations. Gafarli said Russia’s determination to push that political process forward was one reason Moscow was avoiding putting pressure on Turkey over Idlib.

“There may be a second Sochi congress before the end of the year,” Gafarli said. Turkey, a sponsor of anti-Assad groups, plays a major role in convincing opposition groups to take part in the work for a new constitution. A major battle over Idlib could destroy Russia’s plan to get everyone on board for a new constitution in the coming months.

Vitaly Naumkin, academic director of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Oriental Studies and a Middle East adviser of the Russian government, was quoted by the Sputnik news website as saying the constitutional committee could be operational before the end of the year or early next year because “everything is being done in order to facilitate this process.”

UN Syria Envoy Staffan de Mistura, who is to travel to Damascus for talks October 24, said he hoped the constitutional committee would be operational by the time he leaves his post at the end of November.