Two Russian military police officers guard in the yard of Aleppo’s oldest Umayyad mosque, Syria (Source: PTI)

Russia Calls Off Idlib Attack, Agrees With Turkey on Buffer Zone

(Bloomberg) -- Russia called off a campaign against the last major rebel-held area in Syria, preventing for now an escalation in the seven-year war, after Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached a deal on Monday.

The pact came just over a week after Putin rejected Erdogan’s call for a cease-fire in the area and is the latest example of the Kremlin’s tense balancing act among the rival factions in the Syrian conflict. A new test for Moscow came late Monday, as 15 Russian servicemen were killed when a reconnaissance aircraft was shot down off the Syrian coast. Russia’s Defense Ministry said the plane was hit mistakenly by an air-defense missile fired by Syrian forces that were under attack from Israeli planes. Israel declined comment.

Since sending forces to support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2015, Russia has been a dominant player in the conflict. With the regime closing in on Idlib, the last major rebel-held region, tensions among the outside powers involved have spiked. U.S. President Donald Trump warned of a “human tragedy’’ and his aides threatened military action. Erdogan said an attack by Syrian forces and their Iranian backers would cause “a lake of blood.” That appears to have swayed Putin to back a compromise that at least puts off the offensive but shifts the burden to Erdogan to deal with the thousands of jihadists holed up in the region.

NATO Wedge

The Turkish president has sent troops to Idlib, supports rebels there and is a fierce Assad opponent. That aligned him with the U.S. earlier in the war. But after Russian intervention in 2015 turned the tide in Assad’s favor, Erdogan began to change course. In the past year he’s worked closely with Putin and Iran, Assad’s other main backer, on plans to end the war –- while relations with the U.S. deteriorated.

“For Russia, the strategic relationship with Turkey is more important than indulging Assad,’’ said Heiko Wimmen, director of the Syria, Iraq and Lebanon Project at the International Crisis Group.

“Driving a wedge into NATO and pulling Turkey over to their side is a huge success,’’ Wimmen said. “They want to convert their successes in Syria into a sustainable political solution. They need Turkey for that.’’

Putin and Erdogan announced their accord after talks in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Only limited details were made public. The two agreed to deploy forces to patrol a new demilitarized zone separating Syrian forces from opposition groups dominated by jihadists. Assad’s forces would call off their offensive, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said.

Putin said the buffer zone will extend for 15-20 kilometers (9-12 miles) between government and rebel forces by Oct. 15. All heavy weapons are supposed be removed by Oct. 10.

‘Will It Hold?’

Putin said the approach has the “overall’’ support of Assad’s government. Erdogan, who’s expressed concern about a new wave of Syrian refugees fleeing to Turkey from Idlib, said the pact can prevent “a major humanitarian crisis.’’

There are plenty of unanswered questions. The opposition fighters in Idlib include some 10,000 jihadists with links to al-Qaeda, as well as a larger number of rebels said to be more moderate -– some of them Turkish allies.

Erdogan said Turkey will keep radical groups out of the demilitarized area. He said non-jihadist rebels opposing Assad can stay where they are.

“The thing to watch is, will this agreement hold?’’ said Dennis Ross, who was America’s chief Mideast peace negotiator and advised several presidents. Based on past truces, there’s a risk that “the Syrians and the Iranians turn on the forces that Turkey’s supporting’’ once radical jihadists are dealt with, Ross said.

Dmitri Trenin, an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, wrote in Twitter the deal means a major assault on Idlib is “at least postponed.”

“Putin acknowledged Erdogan’s concerns and interests. In return, Turkey has to bring the province under control and eliminate radicals. Not the worst outcome for Moscow,” Trenin wrote.

‘Upper Hand’

Monday’s was the second Erdogan-Putin meeting in less than two weeks. In Tehran on Sept. 7, Russia and Iran rejected the Turkish leader’s call for an immediate Idlib cease-fire. Airstrikes against rebels continued, though Syrian troops held back from a full-scale offensive.

A compromise between Putin and Erdogan was inevitable because “neither of them can claim the upper hand,” said Elena Suponina, a Middle East expert in Moscow. “Both sides have powerful cards to play.’’

The U.S. likely hasn’t given up on its longtime ally. With Turkish and American interests aligned in Idlib, there’s potential for deeper discussions, Ross said.

But Erdogan and the U.S. remain divided on a raft of issues -– including Syria.

America’s main allies there are autonomy-seeking Kurds linked to a group that’s been fighting Turkey for decades. They control about a quarter of Syria. Both Putin and Erdogan have called on the U.S. to pull its troops out.

Turkey also enraged Trump by detaining an American pastor, prompting the U.S. president to impose sanctions. Further penalties are threatened if Erdogan goes ahead with his plan to buy new missile-defense systems -- from Russia.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.