- The Washington Times - Monday, September 17, 2018

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Monday that he had struck a deal with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan to table a planned offensive against the Syrian rebel stronghold of Idlib, a last-minute agreement that led all sides of the 7-year-old conflict to breathe a sigh of relief despite a host of unanswered questions about whether the so-called demilitarized zone will hold.

Regional analysts welcomed the accord but said it also underscored the sidelining of the U.S. in the Syrian endgame. Talks among Russia, Turkey and Iran have largely set the terms for what could be the climactic battle of the Syrian civil war.

Emerging from a high-stakes meeting in Sochi, Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan said they would designate and enforce a demilitarized zone roughly 9 to 12 miles deep in Idlib.

The U.S. and international observers had feared the city would become the scene of a historic massacre as Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies moved to crush the last major enclave of rebel forces.

There were widespread fears that Mr. Assad, assisted by a Russian-led air campaign, could employ chemical weapons as part of his ground assault. U.S. officials say Mr. Assad has used that tactic at least twice.

Turkey was caught in the middle because Mr. Erdogan had deployed troops across the border to contain Kurdish forces and prevent more Syrian refugees from flooding into Turkey.

The announcement Monday seemed to allay concerns of a mass military clash and potential humanitarian disaster — at least for the time being. Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan cast the agreement as a major step toward a permanent end to the conflict in Syria, and Syrian rebel groups said they believed a bloody clash had been averted.

“We agreed that practical implementation of the steps we plan will give a fresh impetus to the process of political settlement of the Syrian conflict and will make it possible to invigorate efforts in the Geneva format and will help restore peace in Syria,” Mr. Putin said after the meeting.

As part of the deal, all heavy weapons and artillery will be taken out of the demilitarized zone.

Mr. Putin said all “hard-line militants” — Islamic State fighters, al Qaeda extremists and members of other terrorist groups — would be removed from the area. The militants could face more surgical military operations rather than the all-out assault on Idlib that looked to be on the horizon until Monday.

“The territory controlled by the Syrian opposition must be demilitarized, and the Syrian opposition that is holding these territories will remain there. But together with Russia, we will make efforts to clear these territories of radical elements,” Mr. Erdogan said.

U.S. objectives

The tenuous deal surely is welcome news for the Trump administration, which has struggled to define a set of objectives in Syria and seemed to have little leverage to stop the looming Idlib offensive. The U.S. for years has waged a bombing campaign against the Islamic State in Syria, but the administration stopped short of taking direct military action against Mr. Assad.

The lone exceptions were airstrikes ordered by Mr. Trump against the Syrian regime after Mr. Assad used chemical weapons on his own people.

More broadly, the U.S. avoided entering into a direct confrontation with Moscow in Syria, allowing Mr. Assad’s forces, Russia, and Iran a free hand to focus on slowly crushing rebel forces.

Observers say the situation inside Syria is delicate and geopolitically complex, leaving the White House with few options and all but sidelining Washington as a potential peacemaker.

“Syria is a proxy battlefield,” said Michael Sharnoff, associate professor of Middle East studies at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security. “The Turks are supporting rebel groups, the Saudis are in there supporting rebel groups. You have the Russians and Iranians in there supporting the regime. It’s not like what happens in Syria stays in Syria.”

Syria, he said, “has really been one of the few Arab countries where the United States has had very limited influence.”

The reluctance of the Obama and Trump administrations to get more involved, analysts say, may have played a role in the Putin-Erdogan talks. With little prospect of a major U.S. intervention, Mr. Erdogan may have been able to persuade his Russian counterpart to move slowly and pursue a strategy that centers on rooting out terrorist elements from Idlib while stopping short of a scorched-earth campaign against all of Mr. Assad’s enemies.

“Any American strike in response to a conventional assault on Idlib would be a dramatic change in U.S. policy,” said Robert S. Ford, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute. “Erdogan aims to use these developments to convince Putin to be patient and give Turkey more time to gradually deal with the al Qaeda extremists entrenched in Idlib.”

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill were urging the administration to take a harder line on Syria. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Illinois Republican, said the U.S. should pursue a strategy that would result in Mr. Assad’s ouster from power.

Mr. Erdogan also had urged the U.S. to act before tens of thousands were killed in Idlib. In the end, the Turkish leader is getting much of the praise for finding a way out of what just days ago looked to be an unavoidable humanitarian disaster.

“Turkey offered Putin a ladder with which to climb down from the tree, threatening a military offensive in Idlib that had little chance for success,” Ahmed Ramadan, a spokesman for the exiled Syrian political opposition, told The Associated Press.

“The Turkish and U.S. serious pressures were the reason behind Russia abstaining from the offensive and offering an air cover, which means Iran alone won’t be able to carry out the offensive with the overstretched forces of the Assad regime,” he said.

Abu Omar, a spokesman for the rebel group Faylaq al-Sham, which is backed by Turkey, said the agreement saved countless innocent lives. The city is home to roughly 60,000 rebel fighters and about 3 million civilians.

“Thank you, Erdogan,” Mr. Omar said.

⦁ This article is based in part on wire service reports.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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