Syria was the main topic discussed at the meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep TayyipErdogan in Johannesburg. Before leaving for South Africa, the Turkish leader announced that on September 7, Istanbul was to host talks on Syria between the leaders of Turkey, Russia and France and a representative of Germany. One of the key goals of the forthcoming meeting will be to work out a joint stance on the “situation around Iran”, Erdogan emphasized.
According to sources close to the Turkish administration, Erdogan wants a bargain: in exchange for supporting Tehran in the six-party nuclear deal, Ankara wants other meeting participants to ask Iran to scale back its military presence in Syria and military and technical assistance to it.
During the talks in Johannesburg, Erdogan tried to persuade Putin to make the Syrian government cancel its planned military operation against radical Muslim gangs in the Idlib de-escalation zone, claiming that it contradicted the agreements reached in Astana. He was no more welcoming of the previous operations to oust militants from the provinces of Hama, Homs, Eastern Ghouta and the outskirts of Damascus. And he objected to the actions taken against rebels and Muslim radicals in southern Syria, in the provinces of Daraa and As-Suwayda…
Realizing that pro-Iranian militia groups have seriously reinforced the Syrian government army, Erdogan now wants to do everything in his power to reduce Syria’s military capacity in order to preserve the Idlib enclave, where large groups of rebels supported by Turkey are concentrated. The district is within the area of responsibility of the Turkish troops, after all. And it is here that rebels have felt safe until now.
The same Turkish sources have leaked information that Erdogan is seriously concerned about the agreement supposedly reached by Presidents Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump in Helsinki with regard to the US support of a potential military operation against terrorists and extremists in the Idlib area and to the north of it. These speculations have thrown Turkish politicians off balance. If rebels in this district are defeated, Ankara will be unable to influence the state and prospects of the internal political situation in Syria or put pressure on its government in any meaningful way.
In Johannesburg, the Turkish party presented its plan of “pacifying” the Idlib enclave to Russia. It envisaged restoration of water and power supply, election of local bodies of self-government and administrations independent of the Syrian authorities, opening of roads connecting the area to Latakia and Aleppo, and surrender of heavy weapons by militants.
At the same time, Ankara has officially confirmed its intention to maintain its military presence in northern Syria, to complete the military operation aimed at disarming Kurdish groups, and not to recognize the incumbent Syrian government led by Bashar al-Assad. At the same time, the Turkish authorities are no longer intolerant of the US military presence in Syria, having organized joint patrolling of districts along the Euphrates with the Americans in June. And that was one thing definitely not envisaged by the Astana agreements!
As to the Astana resolutions, they provided for creation of the so-called “de-escalation zones” for accommodating militants and their families in order to avoid unnecessary destruction and civilian casualties. Talks were supposed to be held with former rebels later in order to agree on full disarmament, cessation of unlawful activities and coming over to the government’s side after social and political reforms have been put in place.
It seems very likely that Russia will support the Syrian troops’ military operation against terrorists and extremists in Idlib. Two humanitarian corridors that currently allow civilians to leave the Idlib de-escalation zone were opened with active involvement of the Russian Reconciliation Centre for Syria. Active propaganda has been employed to persuade some field commanders to end resistance.
At the forthcoming four-party summit in Istanbul, Russia hopes to get the French and German leaders to agree first of all to provision of substantial humanitarian, financial and economic help to Syria in order to accelerate the return of Syrian refugees and invite private investors to participate in the restoration of the Syrian economy.
As to the presence of foreign troops in Syria, it will inevitably be scaled back. Ankara feels it. And so does the US. An uninvited guest is hardly better than an aggressor, after all…