The Sochi deal: balancing powers or balancing threat?
Vladimir Putin and his new good friend Recep Tayyip Erdoğan - the two powerful men in the Syrian drama – smiled triumphantly as they shookhands in Sochi. They did it! They signed a surprise deal that claimed it will prevent a looming deadly assault on Idlib; the last standing haven for rebels in Northwestern Syria. On the 17th of September, these two leaders signed an agreement to create a 15-20- Kilometer demilitarised zone in the province of Idlib which would see the removal of the rebel’s heavy weapons (tanks and missiles) as well as the withdrawal of Tahrir al-Sham fighters (al Qaeda’s affiliated group that was formerly known as al-Nusra Front).
Three days later, on Friday 21st September, some rebels in Idlib were cheering the deal by waving Turkish flags next to the Revolution flag, while chanting anti-Assad slogans. On the very same day, a couple of Kilometers away from Idlib, pro-regime Syrians were taking part in Syria al-Salam (Peace) marathon, that was held in Aleppo, Tartous, Homs, Hama, and Damascus to mark the International Day of Peace, which is celebrated around the world on the 21st of September each year. According to the organizers, the event coveys a message about ‘Syria’s strength, steadfastness and victory over terrorism’. Henceforth, both anti and pro regime Syrians spoke of the Sochi deal as their own victory. Well, it is definitely not. As for the rebels, the fact that their heavy weaponry is due to be taken and, most probably never come back, their role has been decisively weakened for the next chapter of this war. As for the regime, whose logic since the outset of the conflict is to eliminate all opponents and take back every single inch of the Syrian soil, this deal is undoubtedly a setback.
On the other hand, although the Sochi deal counts as a triumph for the Russian-Turkish alliance, it is a tactical step by both players to balance the powers and also to balance the threat (see Stephen M Walt ‘The Origin of Alliances’) in a context replete with surprises and variables.
Keeping her military presence is vital for Turkey to contain the longstanding foe, the Kurds. In addition, Erdogan would not want to lose leverage over the 70,000 soldiers who are Arab Muslim Sunnis with very anti Kurdish sentiments. Moreover, the deal would prevent a flow of millions of refugees to Southern Turkey that is already hosting the biggest share of Syrian refugees (2.8 millions). And more importantly, the deal would empower Erdogan’s role vis-à-vis the U.S. with whom he now has the worst relationship he has had in decades as well as boosting Turkey's role in the international arena amidst tense ties with Germany and France. On the other hand, Putin, while still showing strong support to Assad -- providing him with S 300 air missiles, though with limited control over them -- did not want to embark on an open conflict with the US and EU after threatening retaliation if chemical weapons were used. However, this might not be the sole reason that convinced Putin to sign the deal on Sept 17 just ten days after he rejected a similar offer by Erdogan in Teheran, where the two leaders met with President Hasan Rouhani. So what provoked Putin to change his mind in less than two weeks? One must wonder.
Indeed, although the Russian president sought to avoid military confrontation with Washington, he wanted to win a political one since the deal is perceived as an outcome of the failure of US foreign policy in Syria. And hence, the American leverage over rebels would decline. Besides, the deal allows the Turkish troops to do the ‘dirty job’ of fighting Jihadists along its borders and securing the two main highways connecting Aleppo; Latakia and Damascus. Lastly, the Sochi deal would polish Putin’s picture as a peace maker and, a moderate negotiator.
Seen in this light, Russia needs Turkey as much as Turkey needs Russia.They both have mutual interests and the desire to undermine the Americans and boost their power in a pre-conflict Syria. Moscow is very aware of the necessity of having a partner to do so. Erdogan, whose country is a NATO member appears as an excellent option. On the other hand, Turkey knows that the dream to overthrow the regime in Damascus through military means is over. The Russian intervention changed the equation and hence Erdogan, wisely, altered his stances. The Sochi deal is a pure outcome of realpolitik calculations that sought to balance the threat of the Americans and the balance of the various players on the ground.
Nevertheless, the deal sounded quite ambitious; would the 70,000 fighters be ready to hand over all their weapons to the Turkish officials at the buffer zone? And how will Erdogan manage to get rid of the 15,000 jihadists of Tahrir al-Sham? He cannot just send them back to their countries, nor host them in Turkey. And what roles would the Iranians have in patrolling the enclave of Idlib? Would they agree to be marginlaised? These are the most challenging aspects of the deal, which Erdogan promised to fulfil in two weeks.
Certainly, saving the life of some three million human beings trapped in Idlib is the greatest achievement of the Sochi deal as well as the possible deradicalization of fighters who might be convinced to leave Tahrir al-Sham and join groups more loyal to Turkey. Also, the Sochi deal might be an exercise for the post-conflict era, whereby all sides involved in the conflict would be trained to compromise.
Throughout the seven years of the Syrian war, many alliances were born only to be buried shortly afterwards. Yet the Turkish Russian alliance seems to last for the near future. There is no doubt that the Russian troops hold responsibility for the death of hundreds of Syrians and the destruction of their cities and towns. Likewise, Erdogan holds responsibility for prompting Arab/Kurd clashes as well as radicalizing the conflict by giving a blind eye to the flow of Jihadists through the Turkish borders. In other words, both leaders do not take the interests of Syrian people into account when formulating their policies; rather, they act according to their national security interests. Still, this alliance might have potential for drawing a roadmap for the bloody conflict in the absence of actions by those countries who believe in liberal values.
*/ Ola Rifai is a Fellow at the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St Andrews.
The views & information contained in these posts & articles are strictly those of their authors who are solely responsible for their accuracy, and should not be regarded as representing the Centre for Syrian Studies or the University of St Andrews.