Putin and Erdogan Reach Deal on Syria De-escalation after Marathon Moscow Talks
(March 5, 2020) — The leaders of Russia and Turkey have agreed a ceasefire plan for Syria’s Idlib and security measures for the troops stationed there to prevent the escalation in the militant-infested province from spiraling into an all-out war.
The press statement followed hours-long talks in Moscow between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
During the talks, Putin and Erdogan agreed a document detailing a ceasefire in Idlib, starting from midnight on March 6.
A six-kilometer-wide security corridor is to be established in the area, with the militaries of the two countries given a week to agree all the details.
Russian and Turkish troops will also be carrying out joint patrol missions along Idlib’s M-4 highway.
The document, signed after the negotiations, underlined that both Moscow and Ankara remained committed to maintaining the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Syria.
Both leaders acknowledged that the conflict in the country has no military solution and that it was up to the Syrians alone to decide the fate of their country. It was also agreed to facilitate efforts to prevent the humanitarian crisis in Idlib, while also creating conditions for the refugees to return to their homes.
Erdogan agreed to come to Russia’s capital after a string of violent confrontations between Turkish and Syrian forces in the northwest region of the war-torn nation. The Turkish president had told the media that he hoped the one-day summit would result in a ceasefire in Idlib, which both Damascus and Moscow view as the last terrorist stronghold in Syria.
Turkey has sent thousands of troops, tanks and drones into Idlib as part of “Operation Spring Shield.” Moscow has been highly critical of the move, accusing Ankara of shielding Al-Qaeda affiliated forces in the region. Turkey pledged in a 2018 agreement with Russia that it would separate terrorist elements from the so-called “moderate rebels” occupying Idlib — a commitment which Moscow says has not been honored.
US ‘Blocks’ UN from Supporting Russian-Turkish Ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib
(March 6, 2020) — US opposition reportedly blocked the UN Security Council from backing the agreement between Russia and Turkey for a ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib province. US diplomats earlier sought to back Turkey’s incursion in the area.
Friday’s meeting was requested by Russia, after President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan hammered out a ceasefire after a six-hour meeting in Moscow the day before.
However, “one of the parties” blocked the Security Council statement that would have expressed support for the agreement, Russian envoy to the UN Vassily Nebenzia said.
Though Nebenzya refrained from naming the culprit, both AFP and TASS reported that it was the US that vetoed the statement, citing diplomatic sources on East River.
Having pulled back its small contingent in Syria — there in violation of domestic and international law — to seize and hold oilfields, the US has nevertheless sought to influence the situation on the ground by egging on Erdogan to invade Idlib in force.
US envoy to the UN Kelly Craft actually went into Idlib and met with the “White Helmets,” the so-called civil defense actually operating hand in arm with militants affiliated with Al-Qaeda. She later went to Ankara and met with Erdogan on the eve of his trip to Moscow, but apparently to no avail.
Washington’s special envoy for Syria James Jeffrey also visited Turkey, promising “ammunition” and supplies for the Turkish army’s incursion into Syrian territory — only for aides to walk that back afterward as nothing more than routine cooperation with a NATO ally.
The agreement reached in Moscow halts the advance of Syrian government forces, but also establishes a corridor through Idlib that would be jointly patrolled by Russian and Turkish forces, effectively removing militants from the area. It allows Erdogan to save face, but falls far short of his demand for Syrian withdrawal to 2019 frontlines.
It also made it plain that Russia and Turkey will not fight a war and will continue to work together on peacefully resolving the Syrian conflict, however much some in Washington might have hoped otherwise.
US Pits Turkey and Russia Against Each Other with Ammo Offer
(March 3, 2020) — The US has offered to provide Turkey with ammunition to help resolve the ongoing crisis in Syria’s Idlib province. This proposal underscores the impotence and irrelevance of the US when it comes to Syria today.
Following high-level discussions with his Turkish counterparts in Ankara, US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey told reporters that, while Turkey was pressing the US for humanitarian aid, Washington was prepared to offer it “ammunition” instead.
“Turkey is a NATO ally,” Jeffrey said. “We have a very, very big foreign military sales program. Much of the Turkish military uses American equipment. We will make sure that the equipment is ready.” This idea, Jeffrey noted, came from President Trump himself.
Jeffrey’s remarks come as Turkish President Recep Erdogan is preparing to travel to Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin to discuss the devolving situation in Idlib and how best to prevent any escalation between Turkish and Russian forces. With reconciliation and deconfliction dominating the agenda, it is difficult to see how the American proposition could be seen by Turkey as anything other than counterproductive.
Jeffrey’s comment appears to be a byproduct of the total breakdown in interagency policy coordination within the Trump administration. This unwillingness and/or inability to produce coordinated policy comes at a time when the principle body responsible for such actions — the National Security Council — is undergoing what amounts to a purge of professional staff, especially veteran holdovers from the previous administration of Barack Obama.
Policy made in a vacuum is highly susceptible to influence by suggestion, especially when such a suggestion is made by the president. The Idlib crisis has prompted a Turkish request for military assistance in the form of two Patriot surface-to-air missile batteries, which would be deployed on Turkey’s border with Syria and used to help enforce a ‘no-fly’ zone designed to keep both Syrian and Russian aircraft from carrying out bombing missions over Idlib province.
The last time Turkey asked the US to provide Patriot missiles — during the Obama administration — Washington balked, leading Ankara to acquire advanced S-400 surface-to-air missiles from Russia. Turkey’s acquisition of the S-400 sent its relationship with both the US and NATO into a tailspin, leading to the cancellation of Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program and a related reevaluation of its integration with NATO, especially when it comes to air defense.
Jeffrey has been pushing the Pentagon to dispatch the Patriot missiles to Turkey, but he has met with resistance from defense officials, who view such a move as not only inherently destabilizing, but in and of itself unlikely to alter either Russian or Syrian policies and actions in Idlib. The Pentagon, State Department officials have noted, is “resisting doing foolish things with real global ramifications.”
What Turkey has asked for is immediate humanitarian assistance to help alleviate the refugee crisis unfolding along its border with Syria. However, something which would otherwise have been viewed as a ‘no-brainer’ has itself become politicized, with Turkey opening its border with Greece and Europe to refugee traffic in a bid to compel Europe to intervene in Syria.
Meanwhile, the US is going forward with a $108 million humanitarian support package for the people of northern Syria. This announcement was made on Tuesday by US Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft during her visit to Idlib, where she met with the so-called ‘White Helmets’ group.
In light of this visit, America’s proposal to provide “ammunition” to Turkey appears to be very much a policy outlier, born more from off-the-cuff remarks made by President Trump than any coordinated interagency product.
Trump appears susceptible to input from Fox News and from his political supporters, such as Senator Lindsey Graham. While the President’s Twitter feed has been free of any commentary about Turkey and Idlib, Senator Graham’s has not.
“Very much appreciate what Turkey is doing to stand with the people of Idlib, Syria”, Graham tweeted on Tuesday. “It is time for the world, including the United States, to declare a no-fly zone over Idlib before the humanitarian crisis escalates.”
For good measure, Graham tweeted the following commentary: “Russia’s Putin and Syria’s Assad are behaving like war criminals.”
Graham’s call for a US-backed no-fly zone over Syria remains a non-starter. Under normal circumstances, so would the idea of providing ammunition. The reality is that Turkey is largely self-reliant when it comes to ammunition, possessing a very diverse and capable armaments industry.
Moreover, the level of ammunition expenditure by the Turkish military does not come close to the tempo which would threaten the depletion of Turkish on-hand stocks. Even in the area of equipment, there is no ‘quick fix’ the US could provide that could help Turkey.
For example, if the US wanted to replace Turkish armored vehicles lost on the battlefield, any tanks it provided would first need to undergo a lengthy and expensive upgrade and modification process, done in cooperation with Israel — which would preclude any such vehicles from being deployable for many months.
While it is not known at this point what specifically triggered the president’s observation about providing ammunition, the US media has, for the past few days, been reporting on a Russian naval vessel loaded with weapons and munitions — including advanced tanks — bound from the Black Sea to Syria.
President Trump resides in a world governed by transactional politics, where there is no such thing as a zero-sum game. Seen in this light, the offer to provide ammunition to Turkey is merely a knee-jerk reaction to Russia’s provision of arms and munitions to Syria, an act of short-term desperation to compensate for the fact that the US has no plan in place to deal with the unfolding crisis taking place in Syria today.
By injecting itself into bilateral Turkish-Russian diplomacy at this late stage, the US hopes to play the role of disruptor. The reality is, all it has accomplished is to underscore its impotence and irrelevance.
Scott Ritter is a former US Marine Corps intelligence officer. He served in the Soviet Union as an inspector implementing the INF Treaty, in General Schwarzkopf’s staff during the Gulf War, and from 1991-1998 as a UN weapons inspector. The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.
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