Putin and Erdogan in Idlib: A Sochi-Adana Merger?
Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are playing “edge of the cliff” politics in Idlib. Both of them are keeping their cards close to their chests. The platform is Idlib, but the implications of the escalation are of strategic importance. This binary may result in a merger between the Sochi Agreement and the Adana Agreement.
Putin led an attack by the Syrian regime forces to retake control of the highway between Aleppo and Damascus and expand its area of influence over the economic capital of Syria, Aleppo. He also followed how his planes razed most of the opposition’s infrastructure to the ground, including hospitals and schools in northwest Syria. His second aim is to open the Aleppo-Latakia route which means pushing more civilians to the Syrian borders with NATO.
According to a Western official who closely follows Russian thinking, Putin thinks that the priority right now is opening the economic arteries of the areas under the regime. This aims at vitalizing economic activity, which allows for a confrontation with the US plan to maximize pressure on Damascus and gain compromises from Moscow.
The Sochi Agreement over northwest Syria is part of a Russian vision of “gradually restoring Syrian sovereignty”. There is a compatibility between the negotiations and the battles to reach this aim whether by arms or diplomacy. What is he betting on? On his military capacity and him being the most prominent player and holder of the key to Syria, along with the support or futility of several countries. Also, he is betting on weakening Turkey in Syria especially given that its presence there is “illegitimate”. Not to mention, compatibility between the stances of Moscow, and Iran, and Damascus in Idlib.
Erdogan, on the other hand, has started to look into the Idlib file as a “matter of national security”. He has sent unprecedented backup, both equipment and weapons, to Idlib and its countryside. They are still on the defensive. He has escalated the political discourse against Damascus and Syria and has relayed through his negotiators the need for the return of the regime’s forces to the lines of contact in compliance with the maps stipulated by the Sochi Agreement. The deadline is the end of the month.
What is he betting on? He is betting on Putin not risking what he has gained with a NATO member state, whether in terms of developing the joint relations economically and militarily or spreading the S-400 missile system near the American Patriot. Erodgan is also counting on the support he has received from Western countries, especially the US. The US’s Special Representative, James Jeffrey, has said that his country will stand beside its NATO ally.
Putin’s delegation has laid the elements of this position in the negotiations. Erdogan’s delegation put their demands on the table and he knows the limits of US support and that it will not reach military support. Putin knows how important the “Atlantic player” is and the limits of the support coming from regional allies of the “New Soviets”.
Consequently, the door is still open for a deal. The “edge of the cliff” politics may cease under a new agreement between the “Sultan” and the “Caesar”. One possibility is new lines of contact north of the Aleppo-Damascus and Aleppo-Latakia routes and deployment of Turkish troops in a new de-escalation zone, in addition to opening political windows between Damascus and Ankara that spread to the east of the Euphrates.