As this site has predicted for some time, Erdoğan convinced Putin of the need to de-escalate military threats in Idlib, through a combination of arming opposition forces, reinforcing Turkey’s positions, and organising a major diplomatic offensive to bring Western powers behind Turkish policy. The presidents of Russia and Turkey may have agreed yesterday to create a “demilitarised zone” around Idlib, but this outcome was far from obvious after the Tehran summit broke up on September 7th.
Putin’s sudden cooperative stance at Sochi, and his emphasis now on the importance of Russian trade relations with Turkey, means that he had not fully taken into consideration the extent to which Turkey was willing to go to support the opposition to Assad and the dangers that posed to the Syrian régime if an assault on Idlib had led to counter-attacks in Aleppo and Hama, widening the war once again and exposing the régime’s threadbare nature. The survival of Assad is essential for the presence of Russian bases in Syria, and so is the continuation of the myth spun by Russian media that he has somehow won the war, even if he controls less than 50% of Syrian territory, all of it an economic basket-case.
The economic burden that Assad’s Syrian region poses for Russia is clear from the unsuccessful road show Putin recently promoted in Western capitals for the reconstruction of Syria. If Idlib had caused a Russo-Turkish split once again, not only would the Assad victory myth be fatally undermined but Russian economic plans in Turkey would also have to be put on hold; whether Turkstream, the Akkuyu power plant, or the wider project for dedollarisation of Russian trade in general that its currently good relations with Turkey is making possible.
The same kind of scenario holds for Iran. Its latest supportive announcement in favour of the Russian-Turkish deal, follows the relief felt by the Iranian government over the Turkish rejection of anti-Iranian US sanctions. It also perceives the economic opportunities offered by Turkish trade and Turkey’s centrality to the dedollarisation project as crucial to its national interest. Iran also helped to sway the balance of forces away from an assault on Idlib, and encourage the withdrawal of Syrian régime forces. It is also clear to Iran, with the unprecedented Western-backed Israeli attacks on Syria taking place, that the real threats to its national security have little to do with Idlib or indeed Turkey.
The agreement between Russia and Idlib is extremely important for the survival of the political rather than military solution to Syria’s future. Much of the pro-Russian media and assorted liberal commentators have always argued for the military option, for the crushing of the opposition to Assad, and now they maintain that Assad is merely biding his time. That is false. Assad would have come off the worse for a confrontation with Turkey, even with Russian air cover. The new Russo-Turkish agreement is turning point for the Arab Spring, a revival of the hopes for which is now making liberal commentators furious.
The details of the Sochi agreement are that a 15-20km wide buffer zone in Idlib jointly policed by Russian and Turkish forces is to come into force by 15 October, involving the “withdrawal of all radical fighters” including the ex-al-Qaeda Hay’at Tahrir el-SHAM (HTS). Erdoğan and Putin also agreed on the withdrawal of “heavy weaponry from this zone,” including tanks, multiple launch rocket systems, and rocket launchers, much of which had recently been supplied by Turkey anyway, in preparation for the upcoming attack. Now all this will be withdrawn to Turkish territory once again, and the radical groups moved to the Jarablus region of Syria, on the border with Syrian Kurdistan. Turkish intelligence (MİT) has now bought time to sift through the individuals in all those groups to be able weed out the foreign fighters and more dangerous elements during relocation.
War drums in Iraq: While the US makes agreeable noises about this new Russo-Turkish agreement, it is hardly overjoyed at the strengthening of those relations and of the Turkish position in northern Syria. The idea that there is any active US backing for a ceasefire in Idlib and a political solution in Syria is further misdirection from liberal commentary. US belligerence is merely taking a new turn, as tensions in the region now shift from Northern Syria to Northern Iraq, where Iran is facing increasing military pressure from US proxies.
It has become clear that US control in Syrian Kurdistan is viewed by the Pentagon as a launchpad for the re-taking of Northern Iraq with the help of the alphabet-soup of various Kurdish proxies. US Special Presidential Envoy Brett McGurk’s presence in Irbil during the negotiations for the formation of the next Iraqi government is evidence enough. Current US-backed Iraqi prime minister Abadi, whose future in those negotiations is uncertain as a result of his soaring unpopularity in the Iraqi street, is trying to curry favour with the US during this process by acting to bolster Kurdish positions in Iraq against Turkish incursions targeting the PKK.