The deal struck in Sochi, credited with potentially averting what would have been a devastating war in Idlib, is a big win for Moscow.
Not only was Tehran sidelined, but it is Ankara that will have to pay the price of demilitarizing the northwest.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced Monday that they would create a demilitarized zone in Idlib with a depth of 15-20 kilometers by Oct. 15, thereby preventing any advancement by the regime and its allies into Syria’s final bastion of opposition control. The meeting in Sochi came just 10 days after their summit in Tehran with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
“This approach,” Putin said, “was generally supported by the leadership of the Syrian Arab Republic,” although further consultations are to follow.
The affair was starkly different from the summit in Tehran, both in substance and in style, with the talks in Iran’s capital being live-streamed rather than adhering to the typical format of closed-door discussions followed by statements to the press.
Yury Barmin, a fellow at the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow, told The Daily Star that excluding Iran “makes perfect sense.” As was seen in Aleppo in 2016 during Moscow-Washington talks, Iran, he said, has in many cases derailed agreements that Russia has tried to strike with different parties. While he believes Russia and Iran will nevertheless continue to be close allies in Syria, “operationally there’s very little trust.”
With the zone jointly patrolled by Russian and Turkish forces, Iran would now be forced to coordinate with Russia and its room for maneuvering limited, said Aykan Erdemir, senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former member of the Turkish Parliament. “Moscow has never favored giving Tehran a carte blanche in Syria,” he added.
But although Erdogan shared the stage with Putin, the costs and responsibilities entailed in the agreements fall primarily on Ankara.
“The Sochi deal is a win for Russia,” said Nicholas Heras, a Middle East security fellow at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security. “Most cunning of all, by agreeing to this deal, Russia has effectively forced Turkey and by extension the United States, to be the de facto sheriff of Idlib.”
This, he said, now leaves Turkey to take on Al-Qaeda-linked militants in Idlib, not Russia or Assad.
If the Turks are successful, it would also quickly stop further attacks against Russia’s Hmeimim base, which would fall inside the zone’s parameters.
A Russian military spokesperson said in August that the number of drone attacks on its base in Latakia province had increased, with 45 drones incepted in a month.
Turkey is already heavily invested and present in the northwest. Its forces man 12 observation points to the east, and it has already provided significant support to a number of what are seen as more moderate opposition groups, now under the coalition of the “National Liberation Front.” Maintaining this presence works in Turkey’s interests, as it wants to stop any chance of a Kurdish state materializing on its border.
The expectation in Moscow, however, is that with a timeline in place, Turkey should now meet the deadlines. By the end of the year, radical factions and heavy weapons should be withdrawn and the key Aleppo-Latakia and Aleppo-Hama transit routes restored. “I’m not sure if Turkey is able to,” Barmin warned, “it’s unrealistic to get it done by the end of 2018.”
How exactly Iran will react to the announcements in the meantime and the extent to which it will respect the boundaries of the demilitarized zone remains to be seen.
“They [Iran] won’t sit back and watch,” said Nawar Oliver from the Istanbul-based Omran Center said.
“They built an empire for themselves in Aleppo so they won’t agree to zero part in this agreement.”
Oliver predicts that Russia will be trying, if it has not already, to get some form of unpublished agreement in place with Iran, with Moscow understanding that it also needs to play the long game with Tehran.
Despite Iran’s exclusion, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif gave his support to the agreement Tuesday, though also crediting Iran in part for its “intensive responsible diplomacy” in recent weeks.
“Although Iran would not welcome today’s [Monday’s] deal, which could legitimize continued Turkish presence and role in Syria, it would not be in a position to challenge it unilaterally,” Erdemir said.
Instead, “Tehran will continue to exert its influence through proxies and behind the scenes, playing the long game to patiently solidify its hegemony in the region.”
By using its leverage over Tehran and Ankara, Moscow will have curried much international favor by appearing to have averted an all-out war in Idlib that would have sparked a humanitarian catastrophe for the some 3 million Syrians trapped in the province.
In doing so, “the Kremlin is making itself indispensable for all the parties involved, including both its allies and adversaries,” he added.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
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