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Kamran Gasanov

Ph.D, Research fellow, Salzburg Centre of European Union Studies

Column: Middle East Policy

The last meeting within the framework of the "Astana Triangle" revealed, yet again, significant differences between Russia and Iran on the one hand, and Turkey on the other. But unlike the September „no-deal” summit in Tehran, the discussion in Sochi was based specifically on the governing terms of a detailed Memorandum on Stabilisation of the Situation in Idlib.

Turkey, to put it mildly, is not delighted with what is happening at its south-western borders, realizing that it is not capable of singlehandedly freeing Idlib from the HTS. Carrying out a military operation requires huge financial costs and manpower. The probability of human casualties is considerably increasing. Criticizing the idea of allowing the SAA to enter the region, Erdogan has repeatedly stressed the importance of refraining from “bloodbath”, which will inevitably lead to the migration of a million Syrians to Eastern Anatolia, and, from there, to Europe. The worse scenario for Erdogan is if the “regime”, not recognized by Ankara, engages militarily into Idlib. In such a case, Asad not only takes the last stronghold of the opposition under his control, but can also displace 12 Turkish observation posts. In the light of these dangers, Erdogan prefers a “temporary mess” to the loss of influence over a small part of the former Ottoman Empire.

Delaying the search for a viable solution to this problem and the strengthening of HTS gradually convinces Rouhani and Putin of the futility of the “Sochi deal” and the DMZ, which Ankara is unable to create and enforce for almost half a year. If it was not for Erdogan’s opposition, the SAA with the help of Quds Force, Hezbollah and the Russian Aerospace Forces, in all likelihood, would have long since destroyed the terrorists.

Increasing understanding of the real danger and the likelihood of the Russian-Iranian-Syrian campaign formation and solidification, may soon lead Turkey to acknowledge that it is better to be a part of this operation rather than retaining a passive observer status. On the way to Turkey, from the board of his plane, Erdogan admitted a joint military action against HTS.


The last meeting within the framework of the "Astana Triangle" revealed, yet again, significant differences between Russia and Iran on the one hand, and Turkey on the other. But unlike the September „no-deal” summit in Tehran, the discussion in Sochi was based specifically on the governing terms of a detailed Memorandum on Stabilisation of the Situation in Idlib. According to the document, Ankara was obligated to withdraw the militants and weaponry from the 20-kilometer demilitarized zone (DMZ).

Ruslan Mamedov:
The Astana Shackles

However, the ceasefire-agreement did not protect the triangle alliance from "pitfalls" which existed from the very beginning of the Astana-format. The very basic premise of Turkey, notwithstanding the shared allied support for the territorial integrity of the Arab country, differs fundamentally from the one adopted by its partners, Russia and Iran.. More specifically, Vladimir Putin and Hassan Rouhani call for the transfer of all the territories, including Idlib and East of the Euphrates, to Bashar Assad, while Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists on the transfer to the “Syrians themselves”, that means to the opposition - the “National Liberation Front” (NFR) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

While in Sochi, all three presidents agreed that the Idlib province should be cleared of Hayat Tahrir ash-Sham (HTS). But by which means? Erdogan is trying to do this by enticing terrorists to the camp of the SSA and other pro-Turkish groups, which also include "Huras-ad-Din", "Ahrar ash-Sham", etc., or through forceful pressure - with help of this loyal groups. But, so far, Ankara has not succeeded in pursuing this strategy. During the last month HTS had expanded its territories, almost destroyed “Huras-ad-Din”, and cut off the communication routes between Afrin and Idlib. Most recently, the former "Al-Nusra", without a fight, established control overthe Idlib city of Maarrat al-Nu'man.

According to Hassan Rouhani, HTS has captured "up to 90% of the territory of the region." In response, Turkey sent additional manpower and military equipment to its provincial observation posts. In the meantime, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) is deploying its heavy artillery and military forces from the south.

Turkey, to put it mildly, is not delighted with what is happening at its south-western borders, realizing that it is not capable of singlehandedly freeing Idlib from the HTS. Carrying out a military operation requires huge financial costs and manpower. The probability of human casualties is considerably increasing. Criticizing the idea of allowing the SAA to enter the region, Erdogan has repeatedly stressed the importance of refraining from “bloodbath”, which will inevitably lead to the migration of a million Syrians to Eastern Anatolia, and, from there, to Europe. The worse scenario for Erdogan is if the “regime”, not recognized by Ankara, engages militarily into Idlib. In such a case, Asad not only takes the last stronghold of the opposition under his control, but can also displace 12 Turkish observation posts. In the light of these dangers, Erdogan prefers a “temporary mess” to the loss of influence over a small part of the former Ottoman Empire.

Delaying the search for a viable solution to this problem and the strengthening of HTS gradually convinces Rouhani and Putin of the futility of the “Sochi deal” and the DMZ, which Ankara is unable to create and enforce for almost half a year. If it was not for Erdogan’s opposition, the SAA with the help of Quds Force, Hezbollah and the Russian Aerospace Forces, in all likelihood, would have long since destroyed the terrorists.

Obviously, “behind the scenes” there was a direct dialogue between three presidents. But in front of journalists, Putin offered limited remarks in the form of a reminder that “the creation of an Idlib de-escalation zone is a temporary measure”. How “temporary” remains unknown. But, apparently, Rouhani and Putin did make the last “warning” to Erdogan: either before the next April summit in Ankara Turkey is taking effective steps to neutralize the HTS, or Iran and Russia are launching a large-scale operation. The second option not only threatens to echo the fate of Eastern Aleppo, but also evokes a cooling or even gradual deterioration in Russian-Turkish relations. These negative connotations will be exploited by the provocateurs responsible for the tragic death of Russia's ambassador Andrei Karlov.

In the selection of the date of the next summit, the upcoming March municipal elections in Turkey were likely taken into account. Assad's offensive in Idlib can undermine the rating of the Justice and Development Party.

Increasing understanding of the real danger and the likelihood of the Russian-Iranian-Syrian campaign formation and solidification, may soon lead Turkey to acknowledge that it is better to be a part of this operation rather than retaining a passive observer status. On the way to Turkey, from the board of his plane, Erdogan admitted a joint military action against HTS.

“Joint operations can be carried out at any time in accordance with developments. There are no obstacles for it”, Erdogan said.

According to the leaks from pro-government Syrian media, Putin and Rouhani presented a detailed joint action plan at a meeting with Erdogan. The content analysis of the speeches of the three presidents at the press conference partly confirms this leak. Putin spoke about the agreement on “additional measures” in Idlib, and assessed the negotiations as “substantive and effective”. Erdogan added that the leaders of Troika discussed "all steps", that is, all options on this issue.

With less than two months left until the next summit of the “Astana troika”, the situation in Idlib may prove to be a catalyst for positive change within the Russia-Iran-Turkey alliance, bringing intra-alliance cooperation to a whole new level, or it may trigger the onset of its collapse. Urging against such a split, Erdogan told his partners: "If we have passed the sea, we cannot drown ourselves in the river."

The dissolution of the alliance would turn the reality, formed since 2017, on its head, leading to the destabilization of the Arab country, and, consequently, the strengthening of the US position in the region, which has been challenged and damaged throughout the two years since the creation of Astana alliance.


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