Turkish-Russian cooperation is getting deeper in Syria
The fundamental point of the Turkish-Russian agreement reached in Sochi on Sept. 17 was the setup of a demilitarized zone 15 to 20 kilometers deep into Idlib along the borderline separating the region held by the opposition from the region under regime control.
According to the agreement, in the first phase, heavy arms belonging to both the regime and opposition were supposed to be withdrawn from the demilitarized zone until Oct 10. In the second phase all radical terrorist groups were to be withdrawn from the region until Oct. 15.
Fifteen days have passed since the first target date, while 10 days have passed since the second target date. To what extent have the targets been met?
“The withdrawal of the heavy weapons until Oct. 10 has taken place to a great extent. We can say it is almost complete,” Defense Minister Hulusi Akar told Anadolu Agency Oct. 24, concerning the first phase of the agreement.
It appears that a significant result has been registered under this headline.
Regarding terrorist groups, Akar said: “A large number of radicals have been withdrawn and the rate of cease-fire violations has decreased by 90 percent.”
Akar’s words attest to the presence of some elements among these radicals which have not retreated from this region.
Yet, even so, it appears that the parties do not consider this as a problem.
In fact, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s statement on the implementation of the agreement that “even if the deadline finished on Oct. 15, two or three days is not that important. The quality of the accomplishment is more important” is a proof of that.
Even if the targets were not fully met, it is possible to say that the parties are satisfied of a concrete progress on the field as well as the fact that de-escalation is becoming permanent and that they do not want to restrict themselves with time pressure.
In this respect, the deadlines in the agreement seem to have “vaporized” at least for the short term.
Looking back at the more than five weeks that have followed the Sochi agreement, a rather calm period has been left behind. Reciprocal violations between regime and opposition forces since last Wednesday night on the border in Idlib’s south and east are the only exceptions to this situation.
There is no problem in terms of implementing the agreement as far as the Turkish-supported National Liberation Front (NLF) is concerned.
There is problem regarding groups that are outside of this front, such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and other radical groups.
While there are groups within the HTS that joined the NLF, there are also those who continue their opposition.
Even though the HTS leadership did not support the Sochi process in terms of its official rhetoric, it did not take a stance to sabotage the process on the field — at least until now.
There are still a lot more to do on the field. It appears that Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MİT) is continuing its persuasion activities over HTS and other groups to convince them to leave the region.
Following the relative calm in the recent period in Idlib, an important summit will take place today in Istanbul about Syria. Hosted by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel will gather around a table at the meeting to discuss Syria’s future.
This four-way format without the U.S. is important in terms of showing that Turkey, Russia and Europe are taking the lead in shaping the future of Syria.