After protracted negotiations, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, hammered out a compromise, on September 17, in Sochi, to reinforce a fragile ceasefire in the so-called “deconfliction zone” in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib. Since the beginning of 2018, forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, together with Iranian-led Shia militias and supported by Russian bombers and special forces, had already attacked and occupied all other deconfliction zones that were formed in Syria in 2017 to stop the civil war and promote a political peace process. In reality, however, the deconfliction zones allowed the pro-al-Assad forces to regroup and bomb the opposition fighters and radicals into submission, wiping out one zone after another. Last July, it was the turn of the deconfliction zone in Daraa and Quneitra provinces—“guaranteed” by Russia, the United States and Jordan (see EDM, July 26). The US State Department several times warned Moscow and Damascus there “will be consequences,” if the southern deconfliction zone is attacked (Militarynews.ru, June 22). But no such “consequences” ever materialized. The “guarantee” offered by Presidents Putin and Donald Trump personally during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Danang, Vietnam, in November 2017, turned out to be a piece of paper.
In Daraa and Quneitra, as in other deconfliction zones previously overrun, as well as in besieged Aleppo and other rebel-held areas, the rebels (including radical Islamists and civilians that did not want to stay under al-Assad’s rule) were offered the option to be bussed together with families to Idlib province after relinquishing heavy weapons. Today, there are some three million Syrian civilians in Idlib province; of them, over a million are internal refugees running from the al-Assad regime. As pro-government forces prepared to attack Idlib (the last deconfliction zone), the United Nations, together with Western governments warned an offensive would turn into a humanitarian catastrophe and bloodbath (Militarynews.ru, August 28). Russian diplomats, in turn, accused the West of siding with and defending known terrorists. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the West “not to play with fire.” The Russian military (and Damascus) insisted the “operation in Idlib” must go ahead, regardless of Western protestations. Russian officials described the attack on Idlib as “inevitable” and insisted “the nest of terrorists” must be cleansed (Kommersant, August 30). At the start of September, Moscow confirmed the Russian Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily—VKS) had begun bombing Idlib (Interfax September 5).
The West and the UN had not materially responded to the previous attacks and liquidations of the other “deconfliction zones”; hence, their latest protests over Idlib lacked credibility. Washington, together with allies, promised to act decisively if chemical weapons are used by pro-al-Assad forces in Idlib. But the Russian military reacted defiantly, accusing the Syrian opposition of preparing a false flag chemical attack in Idlib under the guidance of British agents to falsely implicate Damascus and provide a pretext for the US and its allies to attack. The Russian-led preparations of the Idlib offensive did not stop (Kommersant, August 28).
Previous Western cruise missile attacks against Syrian government targets, in retaliation to alleged chemical attacks by al-Assad’s forces, did not cause any long-term significant damage. What the Kremlin did take seriously, on the other hand, was the Turkish refusal to agree, even tacitly, to a Russian-led Idlib operation. Despite almost two months of wrangling and trying to bend Turkey (including by Putin himself), Erdoğan consistently resisted. The Turkish military moved additional forces to the Syrian border and also into the Idlib deconfliction zone,” and Ankara threatened to treat any attack on its Idlib outposts as an attack on Turkey. Keeping Idlib in the hands of pro-Turkey opposition forces and preventing a Russian-led offensive there is politically highly important for Erdoğan. Turkish-speaking Turkoman tribes and rebel fighters in Idlib are supported by Turkish nationalists who, at present, hold the balance in the Turkish parliament and are in coalition with Erdoğan. This coalition could collapse if Turkomans in Syria are bombed into oblivion by the VKS. In Sochi, on September 17, Putin agreed to completely call off the Idlib offensive and enforce a permanent ceasefire. Turkey, in turn, promised to persuade radical Syrian Islamist fighters to disband their units and join the moderate opposition; foreign fighters would be sent home. Putin accepted Erdoğan’s plan to form a 15–20 kilometer demilitarized zone in Idlib that will be patrolled by both Turkish and Russian forces. A visibly annoyed Damascus announced the Sochi compromise is provisional and eventually all of Syria will be “liberated” (Kommersant, September 18).
The Sochi compromise seems to be a steep climb-down for Putin who untypically appeared to cave in to Erdoğan’s demands, despite all the previous defiant statements by Russian diplomats and generals. This sudden modesty may be a reflection of the Kremlin’s overall strategic priorities in the region: Turkey is much more important to Russia than Syria or Iran. Russia’s forces entered the Syrian civil war, in large part, to secure and expand the naval base in Tartus (and later, the air base in Hmeymim) on the Mediterranean coast, to help support its permanent Mediterranean naval operational task force (Operativnoye Soedineniye VMF RF na Sredizemnom More). In turn, the Mediterranean naval task force’s role is to counter US (and North Atlantic Treaty Organization—NATO) forces, weaken key US Middle Eastern alliances, and diminish overall US influence and presence in the region. For several centuries, Russian strategy has centered on trying to control directly or have a friendly power controlling the Black Sea and the Turkish Straits. Russia has fought direct and proxy wars over the centuries to command the Straits; and today, the need to control access to the Black Sea seems more important than ever. Putin tends to spend up to half of the year in Sochi, which has effectively become Russia’s second capital and must be guarded as vigorously as Moscow.
Pulling Turkey away from the US, the West and NATO, and turning it into a friendly custodian of the Straits is an old dream that recently seems to be turning into a real possibility: Erdoğan currently has tense relations with both the US and the European Union. Breaking up that opportunity by going against Erdoğan in Idlib because of al-Assad’s desire to quash the last Syrian rebel stronghold apparently seemed too high a price to Putin, despite his generals’ eagerness to attack. Besides, al-Assad looks to be sitting tight in Moscow’s pocket, while the strategic play with Erdoğan is just beginning.