Is the Idlib agreement setting up a Russia-Turkey clash?

Unlike all the agreements that Russia has made with international and regional parties to implement its plan in Syria, the Idlib agreement signed by the two sides in Sochi involves many problems that are difficult to solve or overcome. Moreover, the agreement can only be implemented if a major and humiliating concession is made, by either side; a concession that could completely and permanently end that side’s role in the Syrian war, which means losing all its investments in this war.

As the deadline for the implementation of the terms of the agreement approaches, the terms are becoming clearer, after remaining vague for some time. Perhaps the most serious of which is the clause regarding the area of the safe zone and the distance at which the opposition must retreat to and remove heavy weapons from. At the beginning, the opposition factions understood that this distance would be an equal distance between its areas and those controlled by the regime, but later realised that the Turkish side agreed that this distance be at the expense of the opposition areas.

The literal application of this clause would certainly mean that the opposition would evacuate more than a third of the areas under its control. In addition to this, it would have to concede its best strategic areas due to the fact that they contain hills, highlands and mountains, as well as the fact that they are the best protected due to their location on the line of contention. It is strange that the Russian plan in invading Idlib considered these areas part of the first phase of invasion, and was betting on the collapse of the lines of defence in this area automatically resulting in the fall of Idlib. However, according to Russian predictions, the fall of this area would require great effort and artillery, and most importantly, a large number of troops Russia could not provide. This fact was crucial in the decision to postpone the Russian attack on Idlib.

Read: Syrian rebels start to withdraw heavy weapons from Idlib buffer zone

So, how did the Turkish negotiator overlook these facts and go forward with signing an agreement that is more of surrender than a balanced agreement between two sides, despite them not being equal in strength? Russia’s side of the scale seems more favourable in terms of theoretical calculations, but in practical terms, the situation is not so bad for the opposition that it would force it to surrender before fighting the battle.

This opens the door to questions regarding the nature of the guarantees received by the Turkish side and if it had received promises of not attacking the area, and the withdrawal of the factions is nothing more than a gesture to reinforce trust. This may be a means to pave the way to comprehensive negotiations over the final status in Idlib, clarify the situation of the armed factions there and the fate of the Turkish influence. This presumption is further cited by the reinforcements and preparations carried out by Turkey in Idlib and the weapons it pumped over the past period. It is clear that Turkey has the intention to remain in Idlib for a long time and the Turkish observation points are turning into fortified bases. This is all occurring under the observation of Russia and it is not logical for Turkey to build all of these facilities only to evacuate them after a few days or months.

In contrast, the statements of Russian officials are clear and conclusive that the agreement is transitional and that control must pass to the Assad regime no later than the end of 2018. It is also clear that there are contradictions in the interpretations between the parties, whether regarding the duration of the agreement, the future role and status of the armed factions, and the return of the Assad regime to these areas.

Read: Why the Idlib agreement won’t hold

Most likely, the two sides rely more on bets than on the terms of the agreement, especially the Turkish side, which is counting on the Istanbul quartet meeting, consisting of Russia, Turkey, Germany and France, to pressure Putin and force him to completely back down from the idea of ​​invading Idlib. It is especially relying on German Chancellor Angela Merkel in this regard, given the magnitude of the Russian interests in Germany. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has undoubtedly addressed this issue during his recent visit to Germany.

Russia did not hide its bets on Turkey being unable to meet its obligations stipulated by the agreement, especially with regard to the elimination of extremist organisations and their members. The objective behind this is to put Turkey in a weak position and force it to abandon its objection Russia’s invasion of Idlib. This is what produced the agreement, not their conviction of the need to reach an agreement that acts as a first step to resolve the crisis in Syria, as many observers believe.

Caricature of Syrian President sending air strikes in Syria – Cartoon [Alaraby/Twitter]

However, what are the options available to the two sides and what is their ability to sabotage the agreement in the event that either of them discovers that things are not going their way?

The answer to this question is as complicated as the entire situation. Given the fact that the Russian-Turkish relations are highly intertwined and complicated, talking about a war is not straightforward and simple. In addition to this, the international environment seems tense and cannot bear such options, especially since Turkey is relying on major Western support in this regard. Moreover, the US considers itself a party to this agreement, as President Donald Trump made clear in his speech at the current session of the UN General Assembly. Furthermore, Russia has its own considerations regarding the reconstruction in Syria and is aware that revoking its agreement on Idlib will eliminate all arrangements in this regard.

It is likely that Russia, with its rhetoric and intimidation, is seeking to extort the West. It is also likely that the Turkish side understands this fact and continues to make arrangements based on this understanding, but that does not mean that there is no danger of confrontation and clashing, especially if Russia is convinced that the agreement did not reap the fruits it promised itself.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Hayat on 7 October 2018.