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The Reasons Behind Putin’s Strength and Erdogan’s Weakness

The Reasons Behind Putin’s Strength and Erdogan’s Weakness

Thursday, 5 March, 2020 - 05:30
Ramzy Ezzeldin Ramzy
Former Egyptian Ambassador and Senior UN official.

All sights are set on the Putin-Erdogan meetings on Thursday. The issue is who will come out on top. It is a safe bet that it will be Putin. Not only because Putin has the stronger hand, but also because Erdogan has few allies or friends that are willing to lend him support beyond rhetoric and some intelligence cooperation that are designed to complicate matters for both Damascus and Moscow, but will not alter in any significant manner the dynamics in Idlib.

Moreover domestically, President Erdogan’s vision for a neo-Ottoman Turkey no longer seems to capture the imagination of the majority of Turks, if it ever had.

President Erdogan seems to have exhausted all his maneuvers at playing Russia against the US, leaving him no option but to escalate his military intervention in Syria to strengthen his negotiating hand. But he has been careful not to overly antagonize the Russians. He has also tried to bring in other parties for political support. He has tried to draw in NATO which in all certitude will not deliver on his expectations. He has also tried to involve President Macron of France and Chancellor Merkel of Germany, which significantly Moscow refused, insisting instead that he accept it’s “invitation” to Moscow.

Meanwhile, Russia has delivered a series of messages to Turkey that it’s patience in indulging it is about to expire.

Among them is continuing to support Damascus, both politically and militarily and, allowing the re-appearance of Iran’s proxies on the border between Aleppo and Idlib provinces, setting up a possible confrontation between Turkey and Iran.

Concurrently, it has also continued in its balancing act between Damascus and Ankara. Demonstrating to both, that neither can obtain their full objectives, while providing its services to work out interim arrangements such as the de-escalation zones that both would grudgingly accept. This policy has served Russia well since a rather messy arrangement was worked out enabling the Syrian government to enter the eastern part of the city of Aleppo in 2016.

Moscow has been insistent that the 1998 Adana agreement is the best way to secure the interests of both Damascus and Ankara. I believe that ultimately there may well be an updated Adana agreement, but meanwhile an interim arrangement is required that meets the short-term objectives of both Damascus and Ankara and, feeds into Moscow’s strategic goals.

To envisage what an interim arrangement could look like, one needs to consider both the short-term and long-term objectives of Moscow, Damascus and Ankara. Iran the other player in this game is not a principal actor in this regard.

For Turkey the strategic goal has now been reduced to protecting its long border with Syria from what it considers is a Kurdish threat and, to ensure that it has a say in any political settlement in Syria.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s short-term objectives are to stop the Syrian army from reaching the border in order to prevent an uncontrollable influx of additional refugees and, not to appear that it is abandoning it’s allies among the Syrian armed groups which it will need to ensure security in the border region. This explains why Ankara wants a long-term and not a temporary arrangement that will allow it to intervene at will.

While Syria may not have the means at this point of time to exercise full sovereignty over it’s entire territory, this is it’s unwavering long-term objective. A long-term arrangement, as requested by Ankara that legalizes Turkish presence in Syria, is not acceptable. Damascus may however grudgingly entertain an interim arrangement in Idlib, as it implicitly does in the northeast. Damascus’s pressing objectives are to control the strategically important highways M4 and M5 and their immediate vicinity to help in reviving the devastated economy and protect the population centers it controls such as Aleppo and Latakia.

While Russia needs to thread the needle between these two positions, it will always work towards securing its strategic objectives which are ensuring that is the most influential outside player in Syria and in so doing enhance its stature as the main power broker in the region, maintain its military presence in the Hmeimin airbase and the naval base in Tartous and consolidate its relationship with Turkey.

Towards securing its strategic goals, Russia has pursued it’s short-term objectives in preserving the Syrian state, working towards an internationally sanctioned political solution and at the same time protecting its airbase in Hmeimin, which remains vulnerable to drone attacks originating from Idlib, and finally eliminating fighters from Russia and the former Soviet Union operating in Idlib.

One can envisage such an interim arrangement in Idlib along the following lines: the Syrian government controls M4 and M5, but does not enter Idlib city, the creation of a safe zone to protect refugees in a defined zone along the Syrian-Turkish border with an arrangement that would enable continued operations against terrorists and, finally an understanding to update the Adana agreement.

Moscow’s strategic interests may well be served by an arrangement for the entire Syrian- Turkish border: an Adana plus agreement. This time however, unlike the original agreement, it will need to be balanced taking into account the security interests of both Ankara And Damascus. It will also perforce have a Kurdish dimension. This would certainly feed into Russia’s strategic goal of being the major power-broker in the region.

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