It has once again been made clear that Idlib is much more than a conflict zone between Turkey and Syria, despite President Erdogan’s historical meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow. It has implications for the future of the region as a whole, and for all neighboring countries.
In the highlights and reviews of the 6 hour talks on March 5, the future of Syria beyond Idlib, the course of the Turkish-Russian relations and the messages sent to the United States were all subtly addressed.
At this juncture, it is worth remembering the hopes and expectations of the two sides before the meeting took place.
HOPES AND EXPECTATIONS ON BOTH SIDES
Ankara and Moscow participated in the meeting with different hopes and expectations.
To summarize Ankara’s expectations:
1. Maintaining its presence in Idlib through a safe zone
2. For Moscow to take actions against the PKK/YPG conducting its activities in the east of the Euphrates River,
3. Finding a solution to the possibility of a migration wave
4. Guaranteeing the safety of Turkish soldiers in Northern Syria
5. Holding on to the opportunity to intervene in the political process in Syria in connection with the Assad’s announcement about general elections on April 13.
6. A ceasefire.
Moscow’s priorities were different, and included
1. Preventing Turkey from shifting towards the United States,
2. Preventing the conflict between Turkey and Syria from turning into a full-fledged conventional war
3. Restraining Turkey’s activities in Syria
4. Maintaining a mediator role between Ankara and Syria.
Having listed the expectations on both sides, we can now evaluate the results and possible outcomes of the meeting.
RESULTS AND POSSIBLE OUTCOMES
The results from the statements of the two leaders and from the articles of the Agreement announced by the Foreign Ministers are:
1. The ongoing conflict between Turkey and Syria has been prevented from turning into a war with the declaration of the ceasefire.
2. The risk of safe corridors on both sides of the M4 highway will reduce the provocations and conflicts.
3. The two countries decided to cooperate on the migration and the humanitarian issues.
4. Turkey will continue its presence in Idlib, albeit in a limited manner.
5. In connection with Turkey’s actions to clean up the terrorist organizations in Idlib, Russia and Syria will engage in similar operations in different ways against the PKK/YPG terrorist organizations.
6. Ankara has maintained its possibility of an intervention in the political process in Syria, through Idlib.
7. Attacks on the Turkish military were successfully prevented.
REMAINING RISKS IN SYRIA
Relations between Turkey and Russia, which were put at stake after an attack that resulted in the martyrdom of 36 Turkish soldiers in Idlib, have now entered a process of normalization via the Moscow Agreement.
Erdogan and Putin’s statements show that the two leaders care deeply about mutual cooperation. However, due to the content of the Agreement and the multi-element structure of Syria, some risks remain:
1. The Agreement suggests a temporary solution. It is clear that the permanent solution is a dialogue and the joint struggle against terrorism involving Ankara and Damascus. President Erdogan’s question to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov (“Does Assad know about this?”) after the signing of the Agreement reveals the seriousness of the situation.
2. It is likely that terrorist organizations, particularly Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, which is active in Idlib, will engage in provocations against Turkish-Russian-Syrian relations. In this context, it is worth noting that HTS released a statement noting that they do not recognize the Agreement.
3. Groups close to Iran are actively taking part in the conflict in Syria. Tehran’s silence regarding the event of the Erdogan-Putin meeting and the Iranian media’s assessment calling it “a fragile agreement” highlight the importance of Iranian participation.
4. Moscow and Damascus’ attitude towards the PKK/YPG, particularly in northern Syria, is quite important. Given that Turkey justifies its presence in Northern Syria via the fight against the PKK/YPG, it is necessary that Moscow responds to Ankara’s concerns. If Russia follows a policy of cession of the PKK/YPG from the United States to itself, it is necessary for the Russian authorities to understand that Ankara-Moscow relations will deteriorate greatly.
5. If the Turkish government continues its policy of heavy involvement in the political process in Syria through Idlib, new events will occur which will disrupt Turkish-Russian-Syrian relations. It is a good idea for the government to reconsider its current policies as soon as possible.
6. The Turkish authorities having invited the United States, the EU and NATO to Syria has understandably created mistrust among our neighboring countries. The continuation of the government’s policy of using the United States as a balancing power against Russia will prevent the crisis in Syria from being resolved permanently.
A PERMANENT SOLUTION
In summary, the Moscow Agreement is important in order to establish a ceasefire and for the continuity of the Turkish-Russian relations. However, in its essence, it is only a temporary solution.
The permanent solution to the migration crisis and on-going PKK/YPG issues would be the establishment of an Ankara-Moscow-Tehran and Damascus axis.
The stability of this axis depends on the Turkish government abandoning its efforts to intervene in the political structure in Syria through Idlib and Russia’s termination of the policies of cession of the PKK/YPG from the United States to itself.
Diplomacy is essentially based on mutually assuring countries’ interests. Today, the best way for Turkey to protect its interests is to maintain mutual trust with its neighbors.