Is a deal with Russia on Idlib still possible?

Is a deal with Russia on Idlib still possible?

At a press briefing on Feb. 12, Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova expressed her hope for a comprehensive solution in Idlib through talks between Turkish and Russian officials.

The first round of talks at the technical level that took place on Feb. 8 and 10 in the Turkish capital failed to produce a common understanding on how to resolve the standoff. A phone conversation between President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin has also fallen flat as the disagreement between the two sides is as sharp as never before. Furthermore, Erdoğan and senior government officials have directly blamed Russia for taking part in the massacres against the civilians in Idlib committed by the Syrian regime forces.

The Russian version of the developments in Idlib is obviously the exact opposite. Russian officials accuse Turkey of not implementing the Sochi agreement and paving the way for the terror groups to expand their influence in the enclave and to stage attacks against Russian-Syrian military facilities in the region.

As a result of the intensified offensive, the Syrian army captured the M5 highway that links Aleppo to Damascus while advancing for the control of M4, linking Latakia to Aleppo. It has taken the control of nearly half of the Idlib province and it has no intention to pause the military campaign.

The point we have arrived at displays a new reality in the field. The Sochi agreement has collapsed and there is a need for a new compromise between Turkey and Russia to avoid further escalation in Idlib.

A new, comprehensive solution requires joint steps for a mutually agreed status quo in Idlib. Turkey has made clear that no attack against its troops will be left unanswered. Russians should urge the Syrian army to suspend any attack against the Turkish observation spots or the Turkish temporary deployments.

As suggested by Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, Turkey should understand that provocative actions by the jihadist groups are making the situation much more difficult and it has to take strong and efficient measures against them. A process to dismantle these groups should be considered as an immediate necessity in order to save the lives of the civilians. At the end of the day, the existence of these radical groups is a future threat to Turkey.

There is a new line drawn in Idlib after the Syrian offensive and it would be unrealistic to expect that the regime forces would abandon all the lands it recaptured. Although difficult, a new ceasefire should be announced after the parties agree on a new border within the province with a new mandate to Turkey’s observation posts.

For sure, easier said than done when it comes to such a tough theater where interests are in constant clash.

One of the incentives for a renewed Turkish-Russian commitment is the level of bilateral ties between the two sides that have effects beyond this region. The wisdom the two sides has brewed over the years on the bilateral relations must prevail in this very difficult period of time. This wisdom will not only save the future of Turkish-Russian cooperation, but also the lives of innocent people.

It will be seen whether the two foreign ministers, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and Sergei Lavrov, will be able to change the course in Idlib through a comprehensive agreement when they meet in Munich on Sunday.