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Idlib rift between Russia and Turkey

Ankara is hindering the implementation of the Sochi and Astana agreements

14.12.2018 15:08 Andrei Ontikov, an international observer

Idlib rift between Russia and Turkey

           The creation of a de-militarized zone in Syria's Idlib, which the Russian and Turkish leaders agreed on in Sochi in September, has been dragging on, although it was to be stablished by October 15. There are no conditions for it to be established in a foreseeable future and it seems that Ankara is deliberately hindering the process while getting accustomed to areas that it controls.

            The Sputnik news agency citing its sources reported that over 400 militants, mainly of Yemeni origin, belonging to the Al-Qaeda terrorist group, which is banned in Russia, have come to Idlib through the Turkish territory over the past two months. Moreover, it seems that the Turks would not mind launching economic activity there. In particular, the Anadolu news agency reported that the head of the Turkish Red Crescent opened in early December a primary school and a sewing workshop in the city of Khan Shaykhun, which is under militants' control. Meanwhile, in late November, Syria's Permanent Representative to the UN Bashar Jaafari accused Turkey of renaming some populated communities and giving them Turkish names, introducing Turkish lira instead of Syrian pound for mutual settlements, changing Syrian school curriculums to Turkish and other similar steps.

            However, if the terms of creating the de-militarized zone have already been disrupted, then another part of the Sochi agreements dealing with the resumption of traffic along the Aleppo-Latakia and the Aleppo-Hama highways is likely to be disrupted in a foreseeable future. It was expected that the traffic would resume by the end of the year. This means that slightly more than two weeks are left. At the same time, Syria's Al-Watan daily reported citing its sources that Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which is an umbrella terrorist group under the Jabhat al-Nusra leadership banned in Russia, laid down conditions to Turkey in exchange to launching traffic along these two highways. For one, Ankara should put no more pressure of the group seeking its disbandment and ensure its representation in "the provisional government" that was announced by Syria's external opposition in 2013. Moreover, the traffic along these two roads should be controlled by Turkish military officers without the participation of the Russians. Finally, al-Nusra agrees to withdraw its units seven kilometers away from these roads, not ten as it was agreed before. It is still unclear what Syrian President Bashar Assad thinks about it.

            It is easy to understand the general attitude of Turkey to the Sochi and Astana agreements to create a de-escalation zone in Idlib. Turkey stresses every time that any change in the current status quo will result in a 3.5-million wave of refugees. In this light, it is not accidental that Germany and France joined the Idlib settlement, as it is well-known where this wave of refugees will go. Turkey, when hinted that it would be good to give these districts under the control of the Syrian government, gives to understand that it will do so only after the political settlement is over.

            And here there is a rift between Ankara and Moscow. At least, as President of Russia Vladimir Putin said in the wake of the four-lateral summit on Syria in late October, "the creation of the de-militarized zone, just as the de-escalation zone itself, is a provisional measure." In any way, Russia is still waiting and just recording the fact that the Turks are so far unable to fulfill what had been earlier agreed on. But patience is not endless.

            There is another summit in sight. It was proposed by President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan on December 1. Slightly more than a month had passed since the first summit and the Turkish leader saw the need to convene the head of states again. Why? If the goal is to discuss other ways of dealing with militants who persistently oppose the creation of the Idlib de-militarized zone and the resumption of traffic along the two roads, it is a good business. But somehow suspicions arise that Ankara just wants to dawdle.

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