A “win-win” over Afghanistan and Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) met with Turkish President Recep Erdogan, Moscow, March 5, 2020

Two peace agreements within a week are a bit too much. Hot on the heels of the US-Taliban peace agreement signed in Doha on February 9, Russia and Turkey have signed a peace agreement over the Syrian conflict in Moscow on March 6. On the face of it, the two are unconnected events but they also could have a bearing on each other.

The US-Taliban peace agreement is meant for implementation — and will get implemented despite hiccups and delays. On the contrary, the Moscow agreement on Syria following intense six-hour negotiations between President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Erdogan is mere “political fiction”, as a commentator for Sputnik dismissively called it. 

To be sure, Erdogan literally extracted the meeting from a reluctant Kremlin through coercive diplomacy. Turkey stepped up its military offensive against the Syrian government forces last week, which triggered unease in the Kremlin that Russia and Turkey were moving closer and closer to a conflict in Idlib. 

The terms of the Moscow agreement are ambivalent. The main agreed points are: 

  • A ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib province will start at 00:01 on 6 March.
  • Russia and Turkey will start joint patrols on the M4 highway in Syria. The patrolling will take place from the settlement of Tronba, located 2km west of the strategic town of Saraqib, to the settlement of Ain al Havr.
  • A 12-km security corridor for Syria’s Idlib province will be established to the north and to the south of the highway. (“The specific parameters of the functioning of the security corridor will be agreed upon by the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation and the Turkish Republic within seven days”, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said.) 
  • Both countries agreed on efforts to prevent further aggravation of the humanitarian situation in Syria.

It may seem Turkey succeeded in getting Russia to halt the Syrian offensive in Idlib. But on closer look, the ceasefire has come at a juncture when the Turkish forces were inflicting heavy damages on Assad’s army. 

Turkey brought into the fighting such lethal weaponry as MANPADS (shoulder mounted anti aircraft weapon), artillery and advanced drones and a systematic degradation of Syrian military infrastructure was unfolding. 

There was a growing danger that the Syrian forces might be outgunned and outmanoeuvred by the powerful Turkish military. Suffice to say, the ceasefire agreed upon in Moscow gives the Syrian forces some much-needed respite that will help it to replenish depleted strength and consolidate its territorial gains. 

But the missing link here is the ceasefire line. The point is, Erdogan had set end-February as the deadline for Syrian forces to withdraw from Idlib’s de-escalation zone but Syrian and Russian forces not only ignored the warning but pressed ahead with their offensive, creating new facts on the ground, including some strategically important locations. 

Equally, there is a big question mark about the future conduct of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the rebranded al-Qaeda group ensconced in Idlib. From Turkey’s past record of using al-Qaeda to fight the Syrian government forces, the high probability is that Ankara may simply rebrand the HTS and continue to provide it with supplies, weapons and funds. 

The HTS has rejected the Moscow accord between Putin and Erdogan. Put differently, the ceasefire’s longevity will depend largely on the next HTS attack on Russian and/or Syrian assets.  

Evidently, there is no transparency any longer between Turkey and Russia. Turkey makes a pretence of distinguishing between the Syrian offensive in Idlib and Russia as a restraining factor, although it understands that this has been a Russian-Syrian operation. 

Some sections of Turkish opinion even believe that it was Russian jets which killed dozens of Turkish soldiers on February 27. Possibly, Moscow underestimated Turkey’s determination and capabilities and did not expect Turkey to retaliate so fiercely. 

Although the Moscow agreement does not deliver on Turkey’s strategic goals in Idlib, Erdogan is going along with the temporary freeze of the conflict in Idlib to buy time and look for options. It is only a matter of time before Turkey takes on the Syrian government forces in Idlib on a much bigger scale. 

If that happens, Russia cannot afford to watch from the sidelines and a confrontation with Turkey may ensue, something that neither side is seeking.     

Everything depends on the US’ willingness to go beyond the discursive support to Turkey to actual military support. The US can always lend some Patriot missiles to Turkey for a limited period of time which would be a game changer. 

But as of now, the prospects do not look good, and Russia would want to be keep things remain that way. And so long as no encouragement from the US is forthcoming, Erdogan will remain cautious and careful vis-a-vis Russia and avoid further escalation.

Today, significantly, within hours of the US state department reacting positively to the Moscow agreement, Russia summarily switched tack on the US-Taliban pact. 

In a complete volte-face from the earlier stance earlier in this week of rejecting out of hand the Taliban’s mainstreaming, here, and openly lampooning the US-Taliban pact as such, here, Moscow now wants the Doha agreement to be “fully implemented”. 

The Russian foreign ministry spokesperson voiced the  hope on Friday that “all obstacles hindering the implementation of the [US-Taliban] agreement will be removed in the near future. It particularly concerns the release of 5,000 Taliban members and 1,000 government troops ahead of the launch of intra-Afghan talks on peace and a post-war government.” (Emphasis added.)  

If for President Trump a foreign policy success in Afghanistan is crucially important for his election campaign, Putin’s priority undoubtedly lies in an end to the Syrian conflict, which is also what the Russian public expects from him.