Short break in Idlib: Sultan at the feet of Catherine the Great

The contradictory Moscow agreement between Erdogan and Putin indicates only a short break in the Idlib war.

After the intense fighting in Idlib, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan signed a new agreement in Moscow on the 5th of March.

Both sides have repeatedly said that the reason for the fighting in Idlib was the failure to respect the commitments made in the Sochi agreement of 17th September 2018. From the statements made during the intensification of the conflict in February it became clear that Erdogan and Putin had different views on this agreement.

Different interpretations of the agreement

It is no different with the agreement recently reached in Moscow. Neither the statements made by Erdogan and Putin after their meeting, nor the signed text, could resolve this confusion. This confirms that the ceasefire reached is hanging by a thread.

Thus, Erdogan declared that Turkey reserves the right to respond to any attack by the Syrian regime. This statement gives an indication of the possible duration of the ceasefire. His statement that a "new status in Idlib" is inevitable, indicates his real intention.

Putin, on the other hand, stated: "Our action is based on the principle of protecting Syria's sovereignty and territorial integrity”. With this, he clearly rejected Erdogan's intention of a new status for Idlib and continued: "Furthermore, we are certain that a weakening of the fight against international terror must not be allowed.” This remark also allows conclusions to be drawn about the duration of the ceasefire.

A ceasefire of probably short duration

Likewise, the text of the agreement read by the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his Turkish counterpart Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu shows that the ceasefire will not last long. The passages in the text emphasising the maintenance of the Sochi Agreement of 2018, the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Syria and the determination to combat "all manifestations of terrorism" including those groups defined as terrorist by the UN Security Council, are in complete contradiction to Erdogan's call for a "new status" for Idlib.

The concluded agreement merely provides a brief respite for both Russia and Turkey. This may have interrupted the fighting for a short time, but the articles contained in the Moscow agreement allow for different interpretations and thus a renewed flare-up of fighting.

The withdrawal of the Syrian army behind Turkish observation posts by the end of February, as demanded by Turkey, has remained an unfulfilled dream. Not only is the withdrawal not mentioned in the agreement, but there is also no mention of the settlement areas controlled by the regime, such as Maarat al-Numan, Saraqib, Anadan and Haritan, which are considered to be 'acquired rights’.

The M5 is not mentioned because it was taken by brute force. The mountainous and difficult region of Jisr al-Shughur on the M4 route has been taken at the negotiating table, so to speak. Groups such as the Turkistan Islamic party, Hurras al-Din and Ajnad Kafkas will be driven out of the region. Turkey should ensure that this happens, if it is in a position to do so.

If a six-kilometre-wide strip of the M4 is established as a corridor in the north and south of the road, the area held by jihadists in the south of the road will naturally fall.

At the same time, it has become clear that Turkey's hopes for NATO and the US will not be fulfilled as long as it does not take a concrete step with regard to the military agreements with Russia, especially on the S400 missile system, or withdraws from them.

The Turkish state has once again seen that it cannot do anything against Russia on its own. Even retaliation for the killed Turkish soldiers was only possible with Russian permission and the partial opening of airspace over Idlib.

Turkey also had to experience that the "refugee card" it has always played led to so much harassment that Europe finally had enough of it. It has used refugees to get military support against Russia in Idlib and money from Europe. It has become clear, however, that the EU, weakened by the Brexit and is looking for new ways, will not enter a war so easily. There is, however, still hope for Turkey that money can be extorted.

Russia, on the other hand, in line with its general strategy, has made a tactical move against a possible partial intervention by NATO and the US. That is all.

Furthermore, the agreement does not use the term "cease-fire" but the expression "cessation of all military activities". This includes reconnaissance, war preparation, troop concentration and military transport. It is therefore a much broader term that lends itself to breaking the ceasefire agreement.

Different perspectives of the contracting parties

After all the clashes, deaths, roar of war, demands for an appointment in Moscow, the conversation at the feet of Catherine the Great, the rush to shake Putin’s hand upon his hand gesture, the deep bow of the Turkish secret service chief Hakan Fidan to Putin and a meeting lasting five hours and forty minutes in total, three clear sentences have come out:

1.)  Erdogan: "The emergence of a new status in Idlib has become inevitable."

2.)  Putin: "We are sure that the fight against international terror must not be weakened."

3.)  Agreement: "Renewed determination that all groups defined as terrorist by the UN Security Council must be eliminated."

Does Erdogan’s demand for status concern a second Hatay?

These three sentences suggest that the truce in Idlib will not last long. Russia considers almost all groups in Idlib as terrorist and eventually the UN will also take action against Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and its member groups on its terror list.

What Erdogan is trying to do with his demand for a new status for Idlib is to maintain his influence in the region. If he cannot completely hold Idlib, he wants to hold at least part of the region, including Afrin, Azaz, Jarablus and al-Bab, and bind the region to himself like a second Hatay.