Sochi Deal: A Step Closer to Ending the Conflict in Syria

Yesterday witnessed two important developments occur with regards to the conflict in Syria that sent strong indications in finding an end to the nine-year war that has ravaged the country. The first was the landmark agreement made during the Sochi summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his visiting Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The second, being the field visit by Syrian President Bashar al Assad, on the same day Erdogan headed for Russia, to the front line Syrian army forces in al Habeet, Idlib.  The region was recently liberated by the SAA following a major offensive and fierce battles with Islamic extremist militias, some Turkish-backed, including al-Nusra, Syria’s version of the Al Qaeda terrorist organization.

Both landmark events coincided with the deadline Turkey had set for its five-day ceasefire in its military offensive against Kurdish militias in northeastern Syria which runs out today. It is virtually impossible to envisage any viable solution without an overall agreement over Idlib; the two main remaining obstacles before the curtain is drawn announcing the closing chapter of the war in Syria. The deal struck by Putin and Erdogan in Sochi yesterday over the Kurdish dilemma, could well be a compromise arrangement that has averted more bloodshed and destruction amid growing international outrage, condemnation and sanction-brandishing Western nations if Turkey doesn’t stop its operations in northern Syria immediately.

Winners and Losers in Sochi deal

Although the Turkish and Russian leaders have been meeting regularly over the Syrian cause, their summit held in the southern Russian city of Sochi on Tuesday could be considered the most successful between Putin and Erdogan so far, particularly in light of humongous challenges, the exceptionally intricate circumstances and the outcome of the meeting detailed in joint Russian-Turkish press conferences which followed the deal which appeared to be shaping the endgame in Syria’s past eight-year conflict.

Whilst President Putin emerged as the kingmaker in Sochi, Erdogan was the beleaguered runner-up and President Assad of Syria the eventual big winner. The deal after many lean years of steadfast patience, diligence and stamina, saw judgment poured over US president Donald Trump by many critics of his foreign policy who saw him as handing over Syria and the Kurds to Russia, Turkey and Assad’s government. They reiterated that both Putin and Erdogan have emerged as the main geopolitical power brokers in the region. Many US, EU and regional writers and analysts have considered Trump as the biggest loser in the Sochi deal, followed by the Syrian Kurds themselves as the second-worst losers. They maintained that the unstated bottom line in Sochi was: “The Americans do not have a place in shaping the future of Syria”.

What did Putin and Erdogan agree to?

The Russian-Turkish memorandum of understanding announced in Sochi on Tuesday included ten main points of a wide-ranging agreement that addresses Ankara’s main concern – the presence of Kurdish YPG forces near their border, yet it acknowledges a major fear of the Kurds – that Turkish-backed Syrian rebel groups might unleash a campaign of ethnic cleansing against them and other minority groups in northeastern Syria.

Under the deal, Russian military police and Syrian border guards will enter the Syrian side of the Syrian-Turkish border from noon Wednesday. Over the next 150 hours, they are to remove the YPG and their weapons, back to 30 km from the border. From 6 pm local time next Tuesday, the Russian military police and Turkish military will begin patrols along that line to a depth of 32 km. Russia seems to be planning to facilitate the reproduction and re-implementation of the Adana Agreement between Turkey and Syria regarding border security and combating terrorism, signed in 1998.

However, the town of Qamishli will not be included in that ten-kilometre zone, and it was not clear if the agreement applies the entire length of the Turkey-Syrian border, or just the areas where the Syrian Kurds exercised control. A controversial point in the deal was that, at least for the time being, Turkey will keep control of the areas it has taken in their recent incursion into northern Syria. Damascus has categorically refused any permanent Turkish or any other foreign presence on its territories, and pledged to get back “every single inch”, and by force, if need be.

The agreement asks the US-backed SDF or YPG forces to concede outside of the current area of conflict. The YPG are meant to withdraw from the towns of Manbij and Tal Rifat. The deal also implies that Russia has become the Kurds’ new guarantor, after President Trump effectively abandoned the Kurds, by ordering the sudden withdrawal of US forces from Syria and leaving the YPG exposed to a Turkish offensive.

With Russia not having enough troops on the ground to carry out the new obligations – more Russian troops are anticipated to arrive and quickly deploy in new areas as per the deal – many Kurds who have well-founded fears of Turkish oppression might well opt to allow in the Syrian army itself, as happened in recent Kurdish agreement with the government in Damascus.

Assad’s daring visit to Idlib’s front line posts

President Assad’s surprising visit to al Habeet – a replica of similar presidential visits to the strategic Eastern Ghouta of Damascus during March 2018, and to Baba Amr, Homs in March 2012,  at one of the most violent and crucial phases of the conflict – was intended to send clear and unmissable messages in all directions, particularly to Erdogan himself, concerning the official Syrian approach to the liberation of Idlib, Syria’s last major and conclusive battle/chapter of the conflict. Assad, accompanied by his Minister of Defence General Ali Abdullah Ayyoub, toured the front line army units, had a hands-on picture of the situation on the ground and engaged in friendly chats with some of the soldiers before he was given a detailed military briefing by senior army officers in the area.

The mere timing of Assad’s visit to Idlib’s hotbeds was a message by its own right; exploring diplomatic avenues for a solution to the crisis doesn’t overrule military readiness to finish the job in Idlib, should that become the only way out. Among the president’s welcoming group of high-ranking officers in al Habeet’s advanced military posts, was Brigadier Suhail al Hassan, nicknamed ‘Tiger’, commander of the recent military operations which liberated some 720 square kilometres in rural Hama and Idlib a few months back.

Turkey and Russia have backed opposing parties in the Syrian war, but the agreement said that the two leaders had agreed to uphold “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Syria. This implies that Putin seems to have ensured that Erdogan’s Turkey to negotiate directly with Assad’s government in Damascus.

In view of Assad’s statements made only yesterday- during his landmark visit to SAA troops in rural Idlib- describing Erdogan as ” a thief who had stolen Syrian factories, wheat grain and oil and who is now stealing our land”, it is understandably difficult to imagine the two leaders sitting at one table in the near future. Despite President Putin’s phone call to President Assad Tuesday following the Sochi deal, Turkish-Syrian negotiations are expected to remain, in the near future at least, at security and military officers’ level at best.