GP Insights

GP Insights # 282, 7 March 2020

Russia-Turkey agreement on Idlib: How long before the 'olive branch' breaks?
Sourina Bej

What happened?
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Russian President Vladimir Putin have agreed on a ceasefire agreement in Idlib, Syria during their talks in Moscow on 5 March. The Turkey-Russia brokered deal went into effect in Idlib from midnight on 6 March. The agreement that would come into force in Idlib is aimed to halt the violent clashes between the Syrian forces backed by Russia and the Turkish forces in the north-western border. 

The deal also concedes "territorial gains for the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad", who has been waging war to retake Idlib, the last outpost under the control of the opposition fighters in Syria. The deal establishes a security corridor in which six kilometres to the north and south of the M4 (an east-west roadway) along with the M5 will reconnect the major cities under the Syrian regime. Turkey and Russia also agreed to conduct joint patrols in this area, starting 15 March. 

What is the background? 
The agreement comes after weeks of intense fighting between the Russian-backed forces of Assad and the rebels. The fighting escalated last week when at least 34 soldiers from Turkey, which supports the rebels, were killed pushing hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing toward the closed border with Turkey. This crisis in Idlib had pushed Russia and Turkey towards a major confrontation, each supporting a proxy group in Syria. The fighting in Syria has also deteriorated Putin's relation with Erdogan and put Russia's aim to ally with Turkey, the easternmost member of NATO in a fix. Until the recent escalation, Putin had kept Assad in line with the Russian interests and also balanced the same with Turkey. In return, Erdogan had also used Putin's bonhomie by feuding openly with the US. Thus, Turkey's policy to accept the Russian made S-400 or to join the energy projects was in line with its 'balance US' policy. The escalation had sored this alliance bargaining amongst Russia and Turkey.

Also, Turkey also escalated the crisis by dropping an earlier agreement with the European Union to halt the flow of migrants across its territory. This has revived a divisive debate inside Europe over the management of yet another influx of refugees. The agreement sorts to put a plug back on the differing power dynamics for Russia and the refugee question for Turkey.   

What does it mean? 
First, the current crisis between Moscow and Ankara was particularly difficult to contain as many Turkish lives had been lost by the Syrian forces that are armed, trained and mostly directed by Russia. This had led to calls for revenge inside Turkey, and the agreement would now allow Erdogan to show the domestic people that it is capable of a voice vis-à-vis Syria and Russia. After losing the main cities in the 2019 election, the ongoing conflict had put a strain on Ergodan's image as an ongoing leader. The agreement will serve as a symbolic stop-gap in the conflict for Erdogan giving him the much-needed scope for a return in domestic politics. 

Second, the deal will not end the violence or the war in Syria. Like the previous agreement over Idlib reached by Putin and Erdogan in September 2018, this deal is only between Turkey and Russia and it remains to be seen how Assad, who was not part of the deal, would respect it. It is important to remember that Assad had vowed to recover "every inch of land" from the rebels. 

Third, Russia has long understood the extent of the power of Assad in Syria. If it wants to protect its military bases in Syria, Moscow has no good options left but to turn to Turkey. Putin had foreseen that once Turkey is allowed to continue its military offensive, Assad will be effectively gone as without the support of Russia, Assad's command in Syria is thin. Thus one sees an agreement on Syria without the Syrian leader between Russia and Turkey. 

Last, Turkey's refugee dilemma has also pushed the cause of the agreement. Assad's offensive to reclaim Idlib that began last year has since intensified, displacing about one million Syrians. In the past few weeks, Idlib has witnessed one of the most violent confrontations in the entire nine-year civil war. The civilians fleeing Assad's violence are pushing toward an ever-shrinking area near Turkey's border. Erdogan cannot politically and economically afford to accept additional Syrian refugees.

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