PARIS, (BM) – On March 6, an agreement on a ceasefire in the province of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in northwestern Syria, entered into force between the presidents of Russia and Turkey, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. It was agreed on the eve, includes only three points and looks equally minimalistic and shaky. The length of the conversation (six hours) indicates how difficult it was to achieve a result.
The agreement provides for the creation of a security corridor of 12 km (6 km on each side) along the strategic highway M4, which runs from Latakia to northern Syria. The rebels, who will control most of it, will have to leave, and from March 15, joint Russian-Turkish patrols will run through the territory. As a result, Damascus strengthens its position, and the rebels lose them.
The agreement also vaguely spells out the need, as far as possible, to simplify the return of refugees and access to humanitarian assistance. In addition, both sides reaffirm Syria’s territorial integrity.
The document is just a draft, since the parameters of the work of the security corridor will be determined in a week by the defense ministers of both countries. “It’s hard for the Turkish side to come to terms even with such minimal progress,” said Maxim Suchkov, an expert on the Middle East from the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs. – The most important thing is that the fate of the M5 road was not mentioned in principle. This may mean that Turkey has come to terms with defeat.”
Vulnerability of Turkish soldiers
The M5 road leading from Damascus to Aleppo is extremely important for the regime in terms of strengthening control in the country. A sign of the desire to take control of it was the appearance in early March of the Russian military police in the strategic city of Serakib at the intersection of the M4 and M5 highways: this should prevent the potential attempts of the Turks to return it.
The contract was a defeat for President Erdogan, because he did not take into account his main requirements. The document does not say a word about the Turkish observation posts surrounded by the Assad regime and the refugees that appeared after the start of the fighting. Finally, Damascus reserves the occupied territory, although Ankara demanded the retreat of the Syrian forces.
Given the vulnerability of Turkish soldiers in Idlib, who are there without air cover, the Turkish leader arrived in the Kremlin with weakened positions and was forced to accept Russia’s demands. During the negotiations, the fighting continued. On Thursday, two more Turkish soldiers were killed by Damascus, bringing the total loss to Turkey in Idlib to 59 people.
A return to the military scenario would be too risky. The Russian Ministry of Defense recently issued a press release warning the Turkish side that it “cannot guarantee the security” of its aircraft in Syria. Russia sent its military police to patrol Serakib (this strategic city was taken by the Syrian rebels with the help of the Turkish army, but then recaptured by Damascus) and significantly expanded its military arsenal (air defense and electronic warfare), complicating the use of Turkish drones.
According to Reuters, Russia has intensified the deployment of reinforcements since February 28, that is, the day after the death of 33 Turkish soldiers as a result of a night air strike by Russian aircraft in southern Idlib. This incident aroused concern in Moscow that Ankara might close the Bosphorus to Russian warships and prevent military transporters from using its airspace.
In six days, five Russian warships were sent to Syria via the Bosphorus. This includes, among other things, the Orsk, a landing ship that can carry 20 tanks, 50 trucks or 45 armored personnel carriers and up to 400 soldiers. Others, Novocherkassk and Caesar Kunikov, can carry up to 300 soldiers, tanks and armored vehicles. In addition, over the past 18 days, 17 military aircraft have flown to Syria, which indicates the highest level of Russian military activity since October 2019.
Be that as it may, in Russia they also do not feel triumph. Rather, the president saved the main thing by reaching an agreement that puts off the prospect of a direct confrontation with Turkey, at least in the near future.
At the beginning of the meeting, Putin again presented the incident of February 27 with the death of 33 Turkish as a mistake, since the Russian military did not know about their position. Immediately after the incident, Moscow made a goodwill gesture, giving Turkey 24 hours to strike, during which Russian aviation remained on the ground. Enough for Ankara to avenge the “martyrs.” The prospect of escalation with Turkey was not considered an option, since the formed partnerships are too important for the Kremlin both politically and economically.
Despite rivalry on the Syrian issue, both countries have expanded cooperation in many areas, in particular in the energy sector. Turkey’s supply of S-400 missile systems even allowed the Kremlin to exacerbate differences in NATO.
Nevertheless, the arrangement looks fragile. “Putin only partially escaped the trap he fell into,” said Alexander Shumilin, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. – The current decision consolidates the recent territorial acquisitions of the Syrian army and for the most part is beneficial to him, but there is nothing for the future. Moreover, the status quo is hardly acceptable for both sides …”
Although Putin and Erdogan insisted on the ability to come to an agreement, despite the differences, the Turkish leader stressed that his country would “with all its might” respond to any attack by the Syrian regime. Will the 14th of its kind truce agreement be implemented in Idlib? “I consider it temporary,” Maxim Suchkov is sure. “But in the current circumstances, a long-term deal was impossible. The parties’ plans are too far and irreconcilable.”
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Source: Inosmi / Marie Jégo and Benoît Vitkine
The point of view expressed in this article is authorial and do not necessarily reflect BM`s editorial stance.