The results of the Sochi summit are a diplomatic coup for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, especially after the embarrassing way he was publically rebuffed by President Vladimir Putin at the recent Tehran Summit.
Erdogan has effectively achieved what he failed to do in Tehran, which is prevent an operation by Russia and the Syrian regime against Idlib that would have had a high cost in civilian lives, and result is a new and perhaps the largest wave of refugees heading towards the Turkish border.
Erdogan has also shown that he does have some sway over Russia, which will be useful for him down the line as the international community tries to hammer out a new constitution for Syria under U.N. auspices.
Having said all of that, we have to be realistic and see that the real test of Sochi’s success will be determined by developments on the ground. There is a feeling in the pro-government media in Turkey that this is a done deal, and attention can now be focused elsewhere. That is not the case by any means.
Sochi is only an interim settlement which leaves many questions outstanding. The most important question involves the radical Jihadist groups that remain in Russia and the regime’s crosshairs, and which Turkey has now been tasked with controlling and keeping at bay in Idlib.
How will Turkey do this, and will it actually be prepared to take on these group, starting with Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), formerly known as the Al Nusra, if they refuse to accept the results of Sochi?
Turkey may be able to convince the HTS that its war in Syria is effectively over, having lost to the Russian backed regime. Many in the west believe Ankara has more influence over this group than it has let on (it only banned the group officially a number of weeks ago), so it might be successful.
This might involve many Jihadists leaving their groups and joining the ranks of the “legitimate opposition” in Idlib. That, however, will clearly be a pragmatic move by them, which will leave them armed with their radical ideology that simply waits for an opportune moment to be reactivated.
Even if the Sochi plan works, Turkey is still left holding a hot potato with regards to radicalized elements, who’s every action will be closely monitored by Moscow and Damascus, not to mention Tehran.
There are also suggestions that Turkey could turn a blind eye to fighters from groups like HTS, who refuse to accept Sochi, as they leave Idlib and move into areas east of the Euphrates River, which is held by the Kurdish YPG with U.S. support, in order to continue with their Jihad.
Those who argue this maintain that this could also work to Moscow and Damascus’ advantage because it would destabilize a region under American protection and force Washington to withdraw its troops from there. Once America moves out, they say, then the regime, with Russian support, can move in.
This however begs other question, especially seeing as Washington’s priority now is to keep tabs on Iran and ensure Israel’s security. Rather than leaving the region the U.S. may decide to dig-in there for the long haul, and effectively help the Kurds carve out a portion of Syria for themselves, which is rich in water and energy resources.
This would also give a military foothold for the U.S. from where it can keep watch over Iran.
The bottom line is that what really happens in Syria still remains anyone’s guess. This crisis has defied everyone’s expectations from the start. Turkey’s misplaced policies landed it where it never expected to be at the beginning. The same applies to the U.S. Even Russia probably never expected the success it finally ended up achieving in Syria.
So it would be prudent to keep in mind that Sochi is only an interim solution, and may yet prove to be a failure given the unpleasant surprises the Syrian crisis has a potential to produce.
It is a diplomatic success in its own right, but the road ahead is still strewn with uncertainties.