Deciphering another Russia-Turkey deal on Idlib

On March 5 presidents of Russia and Turkey met in Moscow where they managed to reach a new deal on Syrian Idlib. Situation in the province has been escalating for weeks and put into question Russia-Turkey cooperation on Syria. Although, after almost six-hours long negotiations Vladimir Putin and Tayyip Erdogan came to a compromise, the issue of Idlib province remains unresolved. The parties established another status quo which sooner or later will be challenged again and will lead to another escalation.

For the moment Moscow and Ankara again proved their ability to reach compromises in time of crisis and dangerous escalation which is an important exercise as the two will need to work together on a lot of different issues in Syria apart of Idlib – other de-facto occupied zones in north Aleppo province, buffer zone in northeast Syria, Kurdish issue, refugees, etc. This is why the recent deal is very important as it highlights both strength and weaknesses of Russia-Turkey cooperation on Syria.

Essence of the deal

Technically, March 5 deal is not a new deal but a supplement protocol to September 2018 Idlib memorandum reached by Putin and Erdogan. On the one hand, it confirms that Russia and Turkey are still in general committed to the deal reached in September 2018. On the other hand, it demonstrates their readiness to accept and reflect new realities on the ground in the new update.

So, what’s new in the recent agreement?

The parties agreed to cease all military actions along the line of contact in Idlib de-escalation zone from March 6. Also, they agreed to establish 12-kilometer-wide security corridor along M4 highway (6 km to the north and to the south of the road). Details of the parameters were supposed to be finalized by Russian and Turkish military by March 13. And, finally, Moscow and Ankara decided to start joint Russian-Turkish military patrols along M4 highway between settlements of Trunba and Ain al-Achra on March 15. Therefore, length of the patrolled areas will be around 80 km and security corridor area will be around 900 sq. km.

Basically, both countries managed to reach their goals, although it looks that Moscow and Damascus got more. Strategic M5 highway is now under the Syrian government control and opened for traffic which is important as the road connects Aleppo and Damascus and is essential for country’s economic revival. Allegedly, M4 highway will be opened after joint Russian-Turkish patrols will secure entire length of M4 through Idlib province. Turkey did not get 30-kilometer-wide buffer zone in Idlib it insisted on, instead agreeing on just 12-km wide security corridor which will be jointly patrolled with Russia. Turkey will control northern part of the road and Russia southern part. As a result, this new security corridor along M4 highway disengages Turkish forces (and Turkey-backed forces) and Syrian Arab Army, potentially allowing the latter to take control over southern Idlib. The new deal also leaves Ankara alone in northern Idlib where it will still have to deal with remaining radical groups – Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Huras al-Din, Islamic party of Turkestan – and also with IDPs and refugees. In other words, it becomes Turkey’s headache.

Although it seems that Ankara got less than it insisted on – the deal is still beneficial for Ankara. First, de-facto Ankara still controls all northern Idlib up from M4 road which is essential for Turkey to deal with Syrian IDPs and refugees. Northern Idlib remains connected with Turkey-controlled northern Aleppo province which is also important for Ankara. Second, Turkish military presence in Idlib allow it to maintain its deterrence capabilities against the Syrian army and to have a bargaining chip for future talks with Moscow over Syria. Third, Turkey avoided direct hot war with Syria which would inflict quite heavy costs on it, including inevitable break-up with Russia.

Ambiguity of the deal

Although being quite an achievement by the Russian and Turkish diplomats and military, March 5 Idlib agreement has a lot of unclarity and causes serious questions. It has already been a month since the deal came into effect but nevertheless it still doesn’t work fully and is rather fragile.

First of all, it was not clear from the very beginning how exactly Russia and Turkey would establish the envisaged security corridor. In order to do that they will need to terminate all terrorist groups that are active there. The biggest issue here is how Turkey is going to implement it given its inability to do so since September 2018? As the deal doesn’t specify how Moscow and Ankara will deal with radical groups in Idlib it will be the major spoiler for Russian-Turkish cooperation in Idlib.

It has already become a problem. As of now, Russia and Turkey managed to conduct only two joint patrols which covered less than a quarter of the original route – in March 15 and 23. The parties shortened the route due to the terrorist threat. In addition to sit-ins and demonstrations, armed groups together with the civilian population erected sand walls and threw metal spikes on the road to block military patrols. After that Turkey asked to prolong initial deadline till the end of March but the situation still remains unresolved.

It shall be seen how Turkey will deal with the remaining terrorists in the security corridor zone, but clearly it is a big problem.

Second, what is the future of Turkish observation posts that are located to the south from M4 highway and are surrounded by the Syrian army forces? What will be their status? For now, the Turkish Defense Ministry says that its observation posts will remain where they are, which means, if Damascus continues its offensive in southern Idlib, it puts Turkish posts under a greater risk of attack, which may negatively affect the entire agreement. A month after the deal came into effect Turkey now have over 50 observation posts in Idlib (majority of them along M4 highway and to the north of it).

Three, will Assad get control over M4 highway and all remaining areas to the south from the road? According to March 5 deal, all fighting must stop along the line of contact which is lower than M4 road. Syrian Arab Army continues limited operations in south and southwest Idlib which may cause more tensions with Turkey and undermine the agreement. Apart of that SAA keeps hitting positions of radical armed groups in near Jabal al-Zawiya and southwest Idlib where militants re-enforced their positions in recent weeks. As these areas are quite strategic (because of their geography and overlook parts of M4 highway) SAA might plan to squeeze radicals up north from M4 road where Turkey will “take care” of them.

Four, when (if at all) will M4 highway be reopened and will it be safe for the traffic? This road connects not only Aleppo with Latakia but also eastern and northeastern Syria with the coast. Reopening of this road is also crucially important for Syrian economic revival. As for now, it seems that al-Qaeda-affiliated terror groups do not plan to leave the area and threaten Russian and Turkish military. Turkish military patrols have been occasionally attacked while en-route along M4 road.

Five, how the deal helps to address IDP/refugee issue? How exactly Turkey and Russia want to solve it? Although, there are reports saying that some IDPs started to return to their homes, there is not large-scale return and no trust that the ceasefire is permanent and will last for a long time. That said, March 2020 has become the quietest month in the last six months.

Therefore, there are quite a lot of questions to a new Putin-Erdogan deal. However, it still better than nothing.

What’s good about the new deal?

Despite existing issues and unclarity with the new deal it is still a necessary and long-awaited step which reflects changes on the ground and establishes a new, although temporary status quo in the province.

Also, it demonstrated ability of Russia and Turkey to handle such sort of crises avoiding sliding into the uncontrolled escalation. In addition, neither Turkey nor Russia are ready to break up or deteriorate bilateral ties just because of Idlib. Moreover, the two need to continue coordination in Syria as de-facto Turkey still occupies northern part of Aleppo province and a buffer zone east of Euphrates, and the Kurdish issue and refugees still remain the key problems for Ankara. Sooner or later these questions also will have to be addressed. It will inevitably require dialog and cooperation between Moscow and Ankara.

One of the most important achievements of Putin-Erdogan meeting is their decision to launch joint military patrols along M4 highway, although it still remains unimplemented. It definitely helps to maintain the ceasefire, although it doesn’t mean there will be no violations. For the first time Russia and Turkey tried this step back in Oct. 2019 when they reached a deal on northeast Syria and deployed joint patrols in the area. It proved to be quite successful experience which helped to prevent further escalation. As of now Russia and Turkey have already conducted 39 joint patrols in Idlib and northeast Syria. This is why, deployment of joint military patrols in Idlib will most likely have positive effect making the deal more sustainable and lasting. It seems that Russia is fine with current status quo and Turkish slowness in implementation of this part of the deal for now. But the previous agreement of 2018 demonstrated that Russia would not wait forever – after seven months Moscow allowed Damascus to start limited offensive on Idlib. This is why, it is not clear when and how Russia will behave if Turkey fails to implement the deal.

Nevertheless, it seems that Turkey will finally implement its part of the deal regarding elimination of HTS and al-Qaeda affiliates from demilitarization zone and separating moderates from radicals. Firstly, Ankara continues to send military hardware and personnel to Idlib. During March Turkey sent over 5,000 units of military hardware and cargo vehicles to Idlib and now it has about 10,000-15,000 soldiers in the province. Secondly, it continues to set up new observation posts in Idlib along M4 highway (on its northern part) that aim at finally getting rid of the radical armed groups who are against Russian-Turkish joint patrols. Ankara has now over 50 observation posts in Idlib which is a huge increase from original 12 post agreed back in the fall of 2018. Third, Turkish military continue their individual patrolling along M4 highway which aims at sending a message to radicals in the area. This is why it gives a hope that Ankara will finally be able to get rid of radicals in the demilitarized zone alone M4 highway.

In general, an updated Idlib deal is yet another temporary solution to the crisis in the province, another temporary status quo which will eventually be challenged. Moreover, the situation with COVID-19 pandemic adds more uncertainty as it will definitely affect ability of armed groups, Turkish and Syrian military to act. As a result, the situation in Idlib remains quite fragile although with more factors which currently restrain it from collapsing back into the escalation.