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The Russia-Turkey Idlib deal is as bad as Trump’s ‘deal of the century’

March 9, 2020 at 12:55 pm

President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan (2nd R) and President of Russia, Vladimir Putin (R) hold a joint news conference following their meeting in Moscow, Russia on 5 March 2020. [Turkish Presidency / Murat Cetinmuhurdar / Handout – Anadolu Agency]

The Middle East has seen some bad deals in recent years; some are still in effect while others have crumbled. The agreement struck between Russia and Turkey last week seems that it will be one of the latter. Instead of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan arriving in Moscow resting on his laurels after a week of punishing Syrian regime forces in Idlib and hoping to strike a deal that fulfils his government’s aim of a fully functional de-escalation zone, Turkey was forced to accept a deal which did not even cover half of the desired goal.

The parameters of the deal included the establishment of a de-escalation zone stretching 6 kilometres on either side of the M4 highway – 12 kilometres wide in total – in which joint Turkish-Russian patrols will operate; the preservation of the Assad regime’s territorial gains in the province; and, most prominently, a ceasefire between the regime and opposition forces, along with their allies.

The deal essentially only benefitted Russia, Turkey and the Assad regime. Russia and Turkey both knew that there was a genuine chance that they could come into direct military conflict with each other had the Turkish retaliation continued at such a level. It would have taken only one portable air-defence missile, which cannot distinguish between Russian and regime aircraft, to shoot down one of the former to tip the scales. Bilateral relations also need to be maintained, given Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system and Russia’s use of the energy pipeline crossing Turkey into Europe.

The regime in Damascus benefitted enormously because the deal guarantees an end to the Turkish bombardment of its forces and the opportunity to regroup for the inevitable continuation of its Idlib campaign.

READ: Turkey should conquer Damascus, but knows it is a trap

It was the Syrian opposition and the numerous civilians and displaced persons within Idlib who lost out with this deal. The rebels have been forced to halt their resistance against the regime forces and are expected to give up some of the territory that they have already captured, and some that they were planning to capture. Apparently the least cared about are the civilians who still remain in a largely unprotected territory and are pushed further north towards the Turkish border every day with no actual guarantee of the province becoming a functional “de-escalation” zone. The prioritisation of the M4 highway and the 6 kilometres on either side means that the remaining territory in Idlib has no such protection.

Children of Syrian families, who have been forcibly displaced are seen at a camp in Idlib, Syria on 14 February 2020 [Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency]

Children of Syrian families, who have been forcibly displaced, are seen at a camp in Idlib, Syria on 14 February 2020 [Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency]

Despite the plight of the civilians, and even the armed opposition factions, some within international humanitarian agencies have expressed their willingness to see a surrender to the Assad regime. These include those associated with the renowned Human Rights Watch, knowing full well that there is a strong likelihood that the regime will carry out vicious reprisals against the population in Idlib if they surrender. “There will certainly be many reprisals,” it has been said, “but not against all 1.5 million in Idlib. If the armed groups put down their arms the bombing will stop, no?”

The terms of the Russia-Turkey deal omit a number of major points. What will be done, for example, about the Turkish observation posts currently in regime-held territory and besieged by Assad’s forces? What is fate of the refugees who have recently been displaced in Idlib and how will they be resettled? And what will be done with the territories captured by the regime since the start of the Idlib offensive in April last year, in violation of the Sochi agreement signed by both Russia and Turkey?

The deal struck last week was a crushing diplomatic defeat for Turkey and Erdogan, whose priority is to keep his country safe from an even bigger conflict. Who can blame him for doing so, though, when he has been left by his NATO allies to act alone?

The whole agreement and its context go beyond poor diplomacy and desperation, however. It has notable similarities with Donald Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ put together by the US and Israel supposedly to ensure a lasting peace with the Palestinians and laying the foundations of a Palestinian state. The deal was, essentially, what has been called a “surrender document”, with the Palestinians told to accept crumbs from the occupation table in return for giving up a significant amount of territory in the occupied West Bank – including the strategic Jordan Valley – and turning a blind eye to the illegal Jewish settlements being built on occupied Palestinian land.

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Many in the international community laughed at the deal’s proposals and the PA rejected them, but the goal of the deal – whether it is accepted or not – was clearly to allow Israel to grab even more Palestinian land and demand ever more concessions. The PA’s refusal to comply simply means that Israel will resort to the unilateral annexation of the West Bank — with Washington’s blessing — as was said openly during the latest Israeli election campaign.

Similarly, the Assad regime and Russia offered this Idlib agreement to Turkey with their own objectives in mind. The ceasefire was the immediate necessity, but it has already been broken numerous times by the regime, from its very first minutes in force. With air strikes and military advances on opposition-held towns in Idlib over the past few days, the regime and Russia have shown that they have no regard for the terms of the agreement — despite having more leverage in putting it together — and are certainly unlikely to abide it. Rather than being content with leaving what’s left of the de-escalation zone, they will eventually continue the campaign to bring the whole of Idlib under Assad’s control using the regime’s “national sovereignty” rhetoric, with total disregard for the eventual fate and wellbeing of its own citizens. Like the “deal of the century”, the Russia-Turkey deal is intended to give the Syrian regime as much territory as possible.

Thus, the Assad regime, the so-called “axis of resistance” and their apparently sworn enemy Israel share striking similarities. We could well see that 2020 goes down in history as the year of bad deals. It has certainly started off that way.

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