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March 9, 2020 Special Dispatch No. 8613

Prior To Idlib Ceasefire Deal Russian Media Argues Whether To Show Erdogan Who Is The Boss Or To Allow Him To Save Face

March 9, 2020
Russia, Turkey | Special Dispatch No. 8613

Russia and Turkey following the March 5, 2020 summit in Moscow between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayip Erdogan reached agreement on a ceasefire in Idlib and security measures that will hopefully stabilize it. At a joint press conference with Erdogan, Putin commented on the talks' successful conclusion: " We do not always agree with our Turkish partners in assessing what is happening in Syria. But every time at critical moments, we were able to find common ground. This happened this time as well."[1]


Erdogan and Putin with key officials in background announce conclusion of deal (Source: Ru.armeniasputnik.am)

The agreement was spelled out by Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. Its three main points are:

A cease-fire would start at midnight along the existing battle lines.

A secure corridor 6 kilometers north and 6 kilometers south from the M4 highway in Idlib, the ministers said. The countries' defense ministers will agree on the parameters of the security corridor within seven days.

Turkish and Russian forces will begin patrols along the M4 highway on March 15.[2]

Both sides expressed satisfaction that a deal had been reached and tended to stress the advantages that it conferred on their side. Leonid Slutsky, head of the State Duma’s committee on international affairs. Exulted that the agreements had "severed the knot of contradictions" between the two countries and as a result "Russia and Turkey will remain strategic partners in political and economic issues, including in the plane of parliamentary diplomacy." Russo-Turkish cooperation would continue despite attempt by external forces to foment quarrels between them. Slutsky's opposite number in the Federation Council, Konstantin Kosachev believes that the agreement will facilitate the development of previously reached but hitherto unimplemented agreements between the two sides on Idlib. He warned that "the East is a tricky matter and where things are tricky they often reach the breaking point." said the director of the Institute for Political and Social Studies of the Black Sea-Caspian Region of the Russian Academy of Sciences Victor Nadein-Rayevsky was satisfied that the gains of the Assad army in its recent offensive had been preserved and the Turkish call for rollback had been rejected. "Putin did not concede our positions, he retained the very positions that the Syrian military and the Syrian government have achieved in Idlib. This is the most important conclusion," the expert concluded. Another plus in the agreement was that Putin and Erdogan had agreed on the need to destroy all the militants whom the UN labeled terrorists. [3] Erdogan expressed satisfaction that " We are in an era in which Turkish-Russian relations have reached a peak,”and claimed that his forces had given the Syrian army a bloody nose . He emphasized that Turkey's military reserves the right to retaliate against any attacks by Syrian regime forces in the region, and that both Ankara and Moscow will work to ensure that aid reaches Syrians in need. This will presumably mitigate the refugee crisis. [4]

Despite the temporary "happy ending" to the crisis, it was not a foregone conclusion and the Russian press hotly debated what should be done after Erdogan bluntly told the Russians on February 29, 2020 to get out of Turkey’s way in Syria and allow Turkish forces to deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Erdogan also told his supporters that Turkey had "entered Syria at the demand of the Syrian people and not at the demand of Assad."[5]

Below is a survey of the debate that preceded the Putin-Erdogan summit.


Putin and Erdogan (Source:Inosim.ru)

Categorical Rejection Of Erdogan's Demand

Turkey Is In Syria Illegally

Oleg Morozov, a member of the Federation Council's International Affairs Committee, took umbrage at Erdogan's remarks especially as Russia's presence in Syria was legal as opposed to Turkey's:"We are in Syria on the basis of an agreement and at the invitation of the Syrian authorities. In addition, we have great military and strategic interests in Syria, in particular military bases," explained Morozov. Furthermore, "it would be extremely ridiculous to leave Syria after the country is practically cleared of terrorists."[6] Morozov's colleague on the committee and its deputy chairman, Vladimir Dzhabarov claimed that Erdogan's threat called into question Turkey's entire presence in Syria. If Turkey was not in Syria to combat terrorists but to overthrow the Assad regime then the issue should be referred to the UN Security Council.[7] The first deputy chairman of the State Duma Committee on Foreign Affairs Dmitry Novikov also stressed the inadmissibility of Erdogan's illegal demand: "As for Erdogan’s claims to determine the fate of Syria, the Turkish leadership has no authority for this. These powers were not granted by the Syrian authorities, these powers are not supported by any decisions of the UN."[8]

An analysis in  the military studies outlet Topwar.ru claimed that yielding to Erdogan would lead to a complete collapse of Russia's position in the Middle East: " For Russia, the demands put forward by the Turks to 'step aside' and withdraw its troops from Syria are clearly completely unacceptable. This would mean a complete collapse of Moscow's entire policy, not only in this country [Syria], but the Middle East as a whole as well. And not only there, perhaps. Money, human lives, diplomatic and military efforts - everything will be thrown to the wind. It is unprofitable to quarrel with Ankara… but to capitulate to it – [For Russia] to sign her own inability to defend her allies' and her own in a critical situation." [9]

Regnum.ru claimed that it was necessary for Russia to put its foot down in view of Erdogan's alliance with Islamic terrorism: "Erdogan’s statement says a great deal. Firstly, even five years following the start of the Russian operation in Syria, he refuses to recognize our country's stated objectives to destroy terrorism and support the legal [Assad] regime. Today's Syrian state is a member of the UN and, accordingly, has the right to individual and collective self-defense [meaning that it can invite Russia's intervention]. Moreover, in the fight against terrorism, it, as well as Russia that is backing it, are acting on the basis of relevant UN Security Council resolutions

"... So, a stiffer barrier must be erected on the path of Turkey's military operations in Syria. In the final account, this is not merely about aggression, but about Erdogan’s direct alliance with the Islamic terrorist front."[10]


Erdogan in the company of jihadists with a blood stained Turkish crescent (Source: Regnum.ru)

Political analyst and economist Yevgeny Satanovsky believed that Erdogan's friendship with Islamic terrorists went hand in glove with threats by Turkish officials and quasi-government circles to stir up Russia's 25 million Muslims against Russia's policy in Syria. This policy would fail as Russian Muslims "fought with Turkey for Russia under the tsars. And they fought well. They fought heroically in Soviet times. True, not with Turkey. But if they had to ... They are fighting for Russia now. Including in Syria." [11]

During the height of the crisis, Sputniknews.com, that is considered a Russian government outlet reminded Turkey that in addition to its questionable presence in Syria, the Turkish province of Hatay bordering Syria had been illegally seized from Syria in 1939.[12]

The Military-Diplomatic Equation As A Factor In The Negotiation

The Military Balance Favors Syria And Russia

Those favoring a hardline position against Turkey claimed that the military equation clearly favored Russia and moreover Turkey was isolated diplomatically. The most extreme formulation of this view was made by Alexander Perendzhiev, a reserve lieutenant colonel and an associate professor at the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics.  Perendzhiev is also a member of Officers of Russia Expert Council an organization of reserve officers that strongly backs the government.  He claimed that Turkish troops were the main opponents of the Syrian army and therefore it was quite natural that Turkey would suffer the consequences. Russia would be more than Turkey could handle but even if Erdogan got his wish to go against the Syrians alone he would rue the day. The Syrian army, he claimed had become one of the most powerful in the world in the last nine years of the war - and "it is impossible to defeat it under any circumstances." After disposing of the Turks Assad's plucky army would then drive the Americans away.[13]

This position was difficult to sustain given the lopsided results when Turkey battled Syria alone. Middle East expert Yuri Lyamin claimed that this situation was temporary: "The fact is that, according to the Sochi accords, drones, including Turkish ones, could be used in Syria to control the situation. But the Turks violated all agreements and applied shock drones. The Syrians did not have air defense systems in those areas. Now they will tighten or have already tightened their air defense systems and assets, and the alignment of forces in the region will be different."[14]

Other analysts conceded that the Syrian army was no match for the Turks and the question was whether was willing to take on Turkey in a direct military clash. Political scientist George Bovt believed that Russia could stand its ground even if Turkey threatened to escalate"

"Then you can, of course, fantasize on the topic of how Erdogan will close the Black Sea straits for the passage of Russian ships, depriving our military of supplies, and generally embark on an escalation path. However, this does not mean that Moscow will retreat and that its positions are weak. It is not even worth mentioning the nuclear arsenal and the fact that in the case of Syria, the 5th article of the NATO Atlantic Treaty on mutual security [an attack on one member is an attack on all] does not apply.

"But what Erdogan certainly cannot hope for is the fulfillment of his previously expressed demand for Russia to “get out of his way” in Syria. Firstly, the Russian military didn’t get there and enter the war on the side of Bashar al-Assad for that purpose. Secondly, Erdogan is far from the only politician in the world who knows how to raise the stakes in difficult situations in order to succeed. Vladimir Putin does it well too.[15]

Turkey Is Isolated

Vz.ru believed that Russia was at a geographic disadvantage as Turkey controlled the airspace and sea lanes. Turkey had benefitted also from Russia's decision not to target the Turks but only the militants. Once Russia changed that policy Turkey would not be able to do anything about it.  Erdogan had a weak hand due to lack of backing at home and having alienated his allies:

"Firstly, Turkey’s weakness is that it opposes Russia, Iran and Syria alone. Ankara was not able to win over either Middle Eastern countries, Europe or the United States.

"Arab leaders fell away immediately. Secular-authoritarian Egypt, after the overthrow of the Muslim Brotherhood, abruptly cooled down to Turkish geopolitical projects - both to support the Syrian Islamists and to help terrorists from the Gaza Strip. Saudi Arabia and the Emirates also will not come to the rescue. Partly because the Turks themselves drove them out of Syria, and partly because they are now fighting with Ankara on the periphery - in Libya, where Turks and Arabs support different sides in the civil war."[16]

Advocates Of Conciliation: Erdogan's Hand Is Stronger Than Russia's

Felgengauer: Russia  Was Complicit In Syrian Attack On Turkish Troops

Contrary to those who favored and did not fear a showdown with Erdogan, other analysts favored a negotiated agreement even at the cost of pressuring Putin's ally Bashar Assad. The most forceful of these advocates was the respected military analyst Pavel Felgengauer writing in Novayagazeta.ru.

Felgengauer charged that Russia's excuse that it did not know of the Turkish forces' presence at the time of the Syrian attack and the Russian Defense Ministry's charge that the Turks had brought the attack on themselves by merging with the terrorists were fraudulent:

"The ever-present official Russian senseless and shameless pack of lies aggravates the situation. The Ministry of Defense stated that the Turkish military "were in the battle formations of terrorist groups" and did not give their coordinates to the Center for Reconciliation at the Khmeimim airbase, so they were bombed, supposedly they were to blame. Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar claims that the coordinates of the Turks were given and that when they were killed, no outside Syrian opposition fighters were around.

"In addition, the Turkish military moved along the highway in a dense column and, obviously, were not deployed in any “battle order” - neither with the “terrorists”, nor by themselves. Had they been deployed and dispersed into a "battle formation" - there would be no such losses. For this purpose, the "battle formations", were in fact invented.

"It seems that the attack on the Turkish column was a deliberate provocation of the Bashar al-Assad regime, which has long been trying to draw the Russian Federation into direct confrontation with Turkey, as well as with the complicity of Russian officials and command structures. A corruption driven interest is also possible." The entire incident required an investigation and possibly personnel changes at Russia's Khmeimim airbase in Syria.

As a result of the provocation, Turkey has responded by firing artillery and rockets from its soil and the Assad army began to fall apart. Since Russia will not attack Turkish soil these weapons enjoy standoff capability. Felgengauer writing on February 29, already predicted that the summit between Putin and Erdogan would result in a ceasefire agreement. He believed that the crisis highlighted the bankruptcy of Russia's Turkey policy "Many Russian military and diplomats from the very beginning believed that nothing good would come of trying to 'turn' Erdogan."[17]


Pugnacious Assad on Russian Life Support (Source: Remodify-live.journal.com)

Kommersant columnist Dmitry Drize claimed that Russia from the beginning of the crisis Russia signaled its intentions that it wanted to solve the crisis. It refrained from striking Turkish forces, sent condolences to Turkey over the death of Turkish soldiers and foreign minister Lavrov had reiterated his desire for negotiations and a peaceful solution and rightfully so since "nobody needs a war." In such a war, Turkey would not be isolated:

"As you know, both the West and Recep Tayyip Erdogan do not favor Bashar al-Assad. Five years ago, they all strictly demanded his departure. Recently, this issue has been removed from the agenda, primarily due to the tough Russian position. However, everything is changing. Moreover, this same pro-Turkish opposition with which we are fighting in Idlib is basically the same Sunni Syrians who fled from Assad’s persecution. Bringing them back and creating a coalition government is the long-standing goal of Ankara, and the West too, primarily so that Assad’s opponents do not flee to Turkey.

"If we talk about a large-scale war, for Moscow it is not at all easy, primarily because it is torn off from the main bases. Two ships will not help here. And most importantly, we are politically alone. No matter how complex the politician Erdogan may be, the West is a priori on his side. Turkey is a key outpost between Europe and Asia, unlike Russia. And Iran is unlikely to help us. It’s hard to resist such pressure. No matter how serious the concessions Moscow may have to make."[18]

Influential Blogger El-Murid Erdogan's Refugee Pressure Will Force Europe To Side With Turkey

The influential blogger El-Murid believed that Erdogan's threat to open the gates of Europe to a torrent of refugees would force Europe to side with Turkey:

"The message is very obvious - the Europeans are confronted with the reality: either they pose to Putin the question of ending [Russia's] support for Assad support (at least in the current format), or Erdogan will cease to fulfill all agreements with Europe and open the borders for anyone who wants to go there. The threat is extremely serious - in the past 15 years Europe already faced the problem of an excess number of refugees arriving at once on its territory and [only] with great difficulty coped with the situation. Now Turkey can drop into Europe three to four times that previous number, and the European structures simply cannot with stand it. And in the context of the epidemic that has begun, the disaster will become total."[19]

Kommersant Columnist Yusin: Assad Will Have To Abandon His Ambitions To Restore Control Over All Of Syria

Drize's fellow Kommersant columnist Maxim Yusin advised Moscow to abandon legalistic arguments about sovereignty. The situation was the mirror image of the situation in Ukraine. There Ukraine relied on impregnable legal arguments and decided to provoke Russia over the breakaway regions. It got Russian intervention as a reward. Assad did the same to Turkey with predictable results.

As opposed to certain wishful thinking in Russia, Erdogan could not back down:

"Here for the Turkish president several factors were intertwined at once. First, there was the imperial past. Syria has been part of the Ottoman Empire for four centuries, and Erdogan looks at events through a historical prism in many ways, [including] considering this region his vital interest zone. Secondly, the ethnic factor. Turks live in northern Syria - people close to the Turks, traditional allies and satellites. Ankara believes that it bears special responsibility for them. Thirdly, there is the refugee problem. If Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recaptures the entire Idlib province from the opposition, as he promises, hundreds of thousands, if not millions of internally displaced persons, will flood into Turkey. Ankara will find it extremely difficult to contend with this stream. Fourth and finally, there are the domestic political patterns. Erdogan, who faces serious opposition and recently lost municipal elections in key cities, does not want to appear in the eyes of his compatriots as weak and defeated while meekly abandoning his allies to be torn to pieces by Assad, his geopolitical opponent."

If Erdogan did not back down this left Russia with two choices:

The first is to leave everything as it is, to put Erdogan to a test of strength, to see how far he is ready to go in realizing his threats, or is it a bluff. If Moscow chooses this path, the battles in Idlib (and then, possibly, on other fronts) will continue, Turkey will be increasingly sucked into the Syrian war. And if it [Turkey] really gets involved, and will be using not the limited expeditionary force, as it does now, Assad will have difficulty confronting one of the most powerful armies in the region. At some point, in order to prevent a military catastrophe, it is quite possible that his allies, Moscow and Tehran, will have to enter into a conflict more actively. And this will mean not only the end of a special relationship with Ankara, but also the risk at any moment, as a result of some random incident, from a hybrid war to go to a real war…

"The second option is a path of compromise and mutual concessions… In this sense, the best option is to recognize that Assad will not be able to regain control of all Idlib in the foreseeable future that a significant part of this province will remain in the Turkish zone of responsibility. This will solve the problem of refugees, and Erdogan will be given the opportunity to save face.

It will be more difficult [to sell a compromise] with Assad, who promised to restore territorial integrity, but now it emerges that he will not succeed. But what can you do? Life sometimes makes adjustments to your plans. And sometimes it is not only life, but also a powerful neighbor, who has his own geopolitical interests in this region, and with whom your patron, even though more powerful, does not want to go to war because of your ambitions."[20]

 

[1] Fontanka.ru, March 5, 2020.

[2] Hurriyetdailynews.com, March 5, 2020.

[3] Ria.ru, March5, 2020.

[4] Hurriyetdailynews.com, March 5, 2020.

[5] Voanews.com, February 29, 2020.

[6] Ria.ru, February 29, 2020.

[7] Rbc.ru,

[8] Lenta.ru, February 29, 2020.

[9] Topwar.ru, March 4, 2020.

[10] Regnum.ru, March 2, 2020.

[11] Tsargrad.tv, March 2, 2020.

[12] Sputniknews.com, February 29, 2020.

[13] Vz.ru, February 29, 2020.

[14] Mk.ru, March 2, 2020.

[15] Bfm.ru, March 5, 2020.

[16] Vz.ru, March 5, 2020.

[17] Novayagazeta.ru, February 29, 2020.

[18] Kommersant.ru, February 29, 2020.

[19] El-murid.livejournal.com, February 29, 2020.

[20] Kommersant.ru, March 3, 2020.

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