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Erdogan and Putin huffed and puffed, then agreed not to disagree 

March 9, 2020 at 10:21 am

President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan (L) and President of Russia Vladimir Putin (R) in Moscow, Russia on 5 March 2020 [Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency]

The whole world waited for the meeting of Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, and hoped for positive results, especially after the start of Operation Spring Shield and its victories against the Syrian regime. The operation dazzled us with the development of Turkish weapons and their accuracy. This raised the ceiling of expectations, or at least the hopes of the Syrian revolutionaries, that the Turkish President would go to Moscow in a strong position, with the cards to dictate conditions to his Russian counterpart, and achieve everything that he sought through the military operation launched in Idlib. The Syrian opposition groups also hoped that the regime would withdraw from the areas it occupied in Idlib recently and leave the “de-escalation” zones as outlined in the Sochi Agreement.

Unfortunately, the Moscow meeting was a disappointment, with a vague and ambiguous closing statement open to interpretation by both sides. On balance, I think that it suited Russia’s interests and those of the regime it was representing. This was evident by the fact that the regime did not withdraw, and maintains control over the areas it had occupied. Moreover, Erdogan and Putin negotiated new “de-escalation” boundaries along the front lines that the Assad regime had created after violating Sochi with a green light from Russia. The meeting in Moscow took into account the developments on the ground, not least that the regime had advanced in some of Idlib’s strategic areas, such as Saraqib, and taken control of the M5 highway between Damascus and Aleppo, and the M4 Aleppo-Latakia highway.

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While some believe that the ceasefire is a positive gain which will protect Idlib’s civilians from Russian missiles and the hell of the criminal regime; Turkish military operations will also stop under the ceasefire terms. The latter also apply to the Syrian National Army allied with Turkey, and the Syrian Liberation Front, which Russia regards as a terrorist organisation and has pledged to continue to fight in order to combat terrorism. This means an indefinite fight, because the SLF will not put down its weapons, despite the vast difference in its capabilities and arms.

What’s more, the closing statement did not mention the situation of the displaced persons and how they will return to their homes. Will they continue to live without shelter on the Syria-Turkey border?

Asylum seekers, including Syrians, Afghans, Iranians and Uzbeks, carry branches and woods to use them for warming-up as they continue to wait near Tundzha river in Turkey's Edirne to enter Greece on 5 March 2020. ([Arif Hüdaverdi Yaman - Anadolu Agency]

Asylum seekers, including Syrians, Afghans, Iranians and Uzbeks, carry branches and woods to use them for warming-up as they continue to wait near Tundzha river in Turkey’s Edirne to enter Greece on 5 March 2020. ([Arif Hüdaverdi Yaman – Anadolu Agency]

Although the ceasefire agreement will upset the Syrian revolutionaries, there are some things that we should not lose sight of. For a start, Idlib is, along with the rest of Syria, one of the common issues between Turkey and Russia, but it is not the most important and both sides are keen to maintain their relatively good relations. These have developed significantly recently, so they are keen about the understandings reached regarding Syria that have achieved gains for both of them.

Ankara and Moscow also agree on two important matters, which is to avoid direct clashes between them and the need to reach an understanding that satisfies both, even if there are concessions to be made on each side. This is how negotiations generally pan out as they seek a reasonable compromise. The number of concessions made is, of course, based on the balance of power.

Furthermore, Turkey’s fighting in Idlib does not exactly chime with the battle being fought by the Syrian revolutionaries, despite the connections between them. Turkey entered Syria in order to protect its own border and got the safe zone that it wanted. Turkish forces are in Syria, with some being deployed after the Moscow summit. They were prepared for any violations of the agreement at any time. The government in Ankara is not so reckless that it would throw itself into a war that will exhaust the state and the army, especially since it is alone and not supported by the US or Europe, and NATO has not deployed any Patriot batteries. Turkey has simply received sympathy and moral support, sweet words that achieve nothing. Although its drones have covered, at least in part, for the lack of air cover, Turkey misses air support and this is a challenge that has hindered major operations.

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Ankara is fully aware of when to turn to armed force; when to stop fighting; when to sit at the table; and when to get up from it. It has succeeded in eliciting Russian and public recognition that the Turkish army has the right to respond to any attack against it in Idlib, recognition which was not there before the summit. It has thus cancelled an important card held by the criminal Assad regime, based on which it could deplete its military operations. Moreover, the Syrian National Army can liberate the areas occupied by the regime since the first breach of the ceasefire.

The purpose of the meeting in Moscow was for Russia and Turkey to preserve their mutual interests. Neither side wants to lose the other, so they have managed to neutralise one another from the tension in Idlib. Erdogan and Putin may have huffed and puffed, but they only agreed not to disagree. It stands to reason, therefore, that this is a fragile agreement and will probably not last long.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.