Idlib ceasefire holds for now in a not so civil war

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So, the guns are allegedly to fall silent in Syria’s Idlib Province as Russia and Turkey have agreed the terms of a ceasefire. As I noted in my previous Eureka Street article, there are some grounds for scepticism — the previous Russia-Turkey agreement at Sochi did not have a great shelf-life and the militants whom Turkey has sponsored, armed and apparently even clothed in Turkish uniforms, have already rejected the current iteration.

President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President of Russia, Vladimir Putin (Getty images/Burak Kara)

Regardless of whether or not they are observed, the terms of the ceasefire are in themselves interesting. This is because they provide a healthy estimate of how two of the major external powers involved see the Syrian conflict at the moment. The terms as they have been released are that the current lines of contact to be frozen in place; a demilitarised zone to be established along the major East-West highway in Syria (the M4); and this zone to be jointly patrolled by Russian and Turkish militaries.

While observers of the Syrian conflict can scarcely be surprised by these terms, they do provide a useful correction to some of the wilder estimates on social media. They also suggest some directions in the future for Syria and Turkey.

As I previously noted, President Erdogan’s Ottoman revanchism has not gone well in Libya. The latest agreement suggests that the true in Syria. In recent days, Turkey has inflicted considerable losses on the Syrian army, it would appear partly by breaching its undertaking to the Russians not to arm the drones it was given licence to fly in Syria.

Despite Syria’s losses, the ceasefire has awarded the Erdogan no new territory. The territories he took back from the Syrian government — which were recaptured again by Syrian forces after the short-lived gap in Syria’s air defences against Turkey — remain in Syrian hands. Russia has restocked the Syrian arsenals. The demilitarised zone agreed lies well inside territory currently held by the Turkish-backed militants.

The fact that Turkey, boasting NATO’s second-largest army, has effectively failed in its third overt invasion of Syria — which has seen it face to face with the regular Syrian army for the first time — has sent shockwaves through Turkish society. There have already been physical brawls in the Mejlis (Turkish Parliament) over the wisdom of the operation. This failure has now been cemented by the ceasefire lines which leave all of the recent Syrian gains intact.

 

'The Syrian ‘civil’ war has been one involving an array of foreign players from the start.'

 

It might be argued that the Syrian government has only lasted as long as it has because of Russian backing. This is true, but it must be remembered that Turkey itself is scarcely alone. The Turks and their militant allies have enjoyed the covert support (including a practical blank cheque for weaponry) of various NATO members and Gulf monarchies. The US is in occupation of part of southern Syria (around Al Tanf) and a number of the Syrian oilwells to the east and has been heavily involved in supplying Turkish-backed rebel groups (including those linked to Al Qaeda) for years. In addition, recent Turkish attacks have been closely coordinated with Israeli air attacks on Damascus and southern Syria. The Syrian ‘civil’ war has been one involving an array of foreign players from the start.

It also appears that one of the major internal players has well and truly changed sides. As I predicted last month, the deal between Russia, Turkey and the Kurds has frayed with the latter now so closely aligned with the Syrian army that they are launching joint operations against the Turkish invaders.

Turkey’s recent moves of desperation, including trying to use refugees to blackmail the EU, saying that it will continue sending them across the border until the EU helps Turkey to change the Damascus government, is further evidence that Erdogan’s Neo-Ottoman project has failed. Despite bellicose statements from the Dutch foreign minister about grounding Russian and Syrian planes, the EU is unlikely to involve itself any more than it already has in a theatre which promises no obvious gains and threatens an entrée to World War III.

Turkey's capital of Ankara’s treatment of refugees has been a particularly tragic episode — there are desperate civilians fleeing Syria, albeit far fewer than claimed by some of the more breathless reports, many trying to escape the very militant groups which Turkey supports. The xenophobic movements in Europe which would impose an Australian-style ‘solution’ on them will be emboldened by Erdogan’s cynicism.

Make no mistake, Turkey will remain a strategic player for the foreseeable future — its position straddling the Bosporus assures this. Nevertheless, the second most powerful army in NATO having played the military card and lost, it will not be able to do so again. If its militants refuse to collaborate with the agreement, they are likely to be given short shrift. The terms of the current agreement suggest that Turkey will be unable to prevent this.

 

 

Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ has a licentiate in canon law from St Paul University in Ottawa. Before entering the Society he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Main image: President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and President of Russia, Vladimir Putin (Getty images/Burak Kara)

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Syria, Turkey, Russia, America, Tayyip Erdogan, Middle East

 

 

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Existing comments

I am not sure it is possible to accurately predict how long the current Syrian crisis will last, nor how it will eventually pan out: there are too many interested parties. Alliances are made and broken. The internal politics of many interested nations may change radically and with that their interest. The only predictable facts are that Syria and its people will continue to suffer for a very long time.
Edward Fido | 11 March 2020


On "Foreign Correspondent" last evening the deaths of Hevrin Khalaf and her driver was investigated. A shocking loss of life for both families, the people of Syria and humanity. A peacemaker killed in a cruel and terrible manner. To what end?
Pam | 11 March 2020


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