Monday

6th Apr 2020

Analysis

Putin and Erdoğan agree Idlib ceasefire, but will it hold?

  • Russian president Vladimir Putin meets with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday in Moscow to discuss the situation in Idlib, Syria (Photo: The Kremlin)

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian president Vladimir Putin agreed to restart a ceasefire in Idlib, the last rebel-held province in Syria, at their meeting in Moscow on Thursday (5 March).

The agreement looks like a reconfirmation of the Sochi deal in September 2018 where Russia promised not to attack Idlib, while Turkey promised to disarm jihadist groups, except that Turkey loses a substantial part of the province in the new pact.

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The deal preserves some of the gains the forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad made in the previous weeks.

This is bad news for many inhabitants of the Idlib province, as the one million Syrians that fled this part of the conflict cannot now go back to their homes, or to what remains of these.

But just a few hours after the deal was reached, Turkey said it killed 21 Syrian soldiers as a retaliation for the killing of two Turkish soldiers by the Syrian army, showing the fragility of the new accord.

The main question for Europe now is if Erdoğan will reverse his decision to open his borders so that refugees can go to Greece.

According to Greek authorities, since Friday (28 February) a total of 32,423 individuals were prevented from entering Greece, and 231 have been arrested.

Turkish interior minister, Suleyman Soylu also said Turkey was deploying 1,000 special police to the Greek border in order to halt the pushback of refugees towards its territory, adding that 164 migrants had been wounded by Greek police.

Will the agreement hold?

Assad's forces have violated the Sochi agreement several times since it was concluded in 2018.

In spring 2019, his army started to bomb Idlib, but the agreement was again reinforced in summer.

At the end of 2019, the Syrian forces started a full invasion of the Idlib province, taking one of its major cities, Saraqib.

In the second half of February 2020, Assad's forces started to bomb Idlib intensively, targeting schools, hospitals, and densely-populated areas.

As Assad's troops were advancing through the province, Turkey started to deliver arms to their Syrian allies in Idlib, who were able to take back Saraqib.

There then followed a dramatic move when either Assad, as Turkey says, or Russia, as many suspect, bombed the Turkish headquarters in Idlib, killing at least 33 Turkish soldiers.

In response, Turkey started Operation Spring Shield. Turkish troops entered Idlib and started attacking Syrian and Russian military targets.

According to Turkish authorities, its army has destroyed two fighter jets, one aircraft, three Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), 135 tanks, 86 rocket systems, 5five anti-air defence systems, 17 anti-tank guided missile bases, 77 armoured vehicles and nine arms depots so far.

Whatever the numbers are, it is clear that the Syrian army is no match for Turkish forces and that even Russian forces are feeling challenged.

This fact has no doubt pushed Putin to renew the ceasefire.

However, the question is if Assad is equally convinced by the agreement.

Since 2019, he was the one who broke the deal and started attacking Idlib in any case. If this was done with or without Russia's silent consent is not clear.

What will Europe do?

The European Union reacted furiously when Erdoğan announced he was overturning the 2016 EU-deal to close the Turkish-Greek border for refugees.

The deal had involved €6bn of EU aid for Turkey's hosting of 3.6m Syrian refugees.

Erodgan did not mince his words and said millions of refugees would come to Europe.

On their visit to Greece on Tuesday, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, EU Council president Charles Michel, and European Parliament president David Sassoli gave the message to Erdoğan that the EU was not willing to discuss a new deal.

On the same day, the US ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, visited Idlib and met with the White Helmets, the volunteers who try to save lives after each bombardment.

This high-level US visit sent a clear signal that the US was supporting Turkey in its endeavours in Idlib.

From the European side, German chancellor Angela Merkel has also called for a safe zone in Idlib, while Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok went even further and called for a no-fly zone.

The question remains open if the agreed ceasefire of Thursday will transform into a kind of no-fly zone, with the support of the United States and some European countries.

Other question are if Erdoğan and the European Union will decide to again discuss the migration deal between the two and if Turkey closes its border first in order to make such negotiations possible.

It is clear that Turkey is pushing for a new deal, but the European Union seems to be much less ready to agree.

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