The negotiations in Sochi were long – over six hours – tense and tough. Two leaders in a room with their interpreters and several senior Turkish ministers close by if advice was needed. The stakes were immense: a road map to pacify northeast Syria, finally.
The press conference afterwards was somewhat awkward – riffing on generalities. But there’s no question that in the end Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan managed the near impossible.
The Russia-Turkey deal establishes a safe zone along the Syrian-Turkish border – something Erdogan had been gunning for since 2014. There will be joint Russia-Turkey military patrols. The Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units), part of the rebranded, US-aligned Syrian Democratic Forces, will need to retreat and even disband, especially in the stretch between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn, and they will have to abandon their much-cherished urban areas such as Kobane and Manbij. The Syrian Arab Army will be back in the whole northeast. And Syrian territorial integrity – a Putin imperative – will be preserved.
This is a Syria-Russia-Turkey win-win-win – and, inevitably, the end of a separatist-controlled Syrian Kurdistan. Significantly, Erdogan’s spokesman Fahrettin Altun stressed Syria’s “territorial integrity” and “political unity.” That kind of rhetoric from Ankara was unheard of until quite recently.
Putin immediately called Syrian President Bashar al Assad to detail the key points of the memorandum of understanding. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov once again stressed Putin’s main goal – Syrian territorial integrity – and the very hard work ahead to form a Syrian Constitutional Committee for the legal path towards a still-elusive political settlement.
Russian military police and Syrian border guards are already arriving to monitor the imperative YPG withdrawal – all the way to a depth of 30 kilometers from the Turkish border. The joint military patrols are tentatively scheduled to start next Tuesday.
On the same day this was happening in Sochi, Assad was visiting the frontline in Idlib – a de facto war zone that the Syrian army, allied with Russian air power, will eventually clear of jihadi militias, many supported by Turkey until literally yesterday. That graphically illustrates how Damascus, slowly but surely, is recovering sovereign territory after eight and a half years of war.