The new ceasefire deal hammered out by Turkey and Russia on Thursday has averted a more direct confrontation between the two countries in Syria, but it’s unlikely to act as more than a short-term placeholder for the final, tragic chapter of the war in Syria.
Ultimately, it will take a peace agreement between the Syrian government and Syria’s armed groups in the Northeast — which will have to include their agreement to lay down their arms — to bring this showdown, and more importantly, the slaughter of Syria’s civilians, to an end.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was quick to realize that he would not be able to defend the armed groups in Idlib, much less the Syrian civilians there, merely by shooting down Syrian aircraft. The much-championed “no-fly zone” solution would do nothing to prevent the imminent arrival of Syrian and Syrian-allied ground forces taking back territory from the armed groups. After the devastating deaths of at dozens of Turkish forces last week — widely believed to have been killed by a Russian warplane — and no help in sight from Europe or the United States, Erdogan realized he would have to make yet another deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Some commentators cheered Turkey’s incursion in Idlib — the last rebel stronghold in Syria —as a heroic defense of Syria’s civilians, and urged Western nations, including the U.S., to once again join in the fight in Syria. But the Trump administration wisely would hear none of it, refusing to provide arms to Turkey. And Europe refused to cave to Erdogan’s threats to open Turkey’s European border to Syrian and other refugees if Europe didn’t support his effort in Syria.
The impending influx of refugees from Turkey generated tremendous pressure and panic among European policymakers. But it only led them to support and justify Greece’s firing on refugees attempting to cross into European territory, not to support Erdogan’s mission in Syria. The silver lining is that this hastened Erdogan’s trip to Moscow and averted a bigger conflict.
Meanwhile, the hundreds of thousands of Syrians trapped and denied entry at the Turkish border make clear that protecting Syrian civilians is not really Erdogan’s interest — keeping them out of Turkey is. That’s why proposals for a “safe zone” inside Syria are back on the table, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel today resurrecting support for such a plan.
But a safe zone filled with armed groups hostile to the Syrian government only will mean the creation of a new Idlib and put off a final resolution to this nearly decade-long conflict. This area will also not be “safe” — if “safe zones” are ever safe — so long as armed groups remain inside the zone and there is no foreign power to provide it with military protection.
Turkey’s most recent experience makes clear that even if such foreign protection arrives, it will be short-lived and ineffective. We can be certain that such protection won’t come from Western nations. That’s why, when push comes to shove, only a peace deal among the Syrian warring parties will end this nightmare.