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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 October 2018

Idlib deal reveals a morass of callous self-interest

As global powers carve up Syria for their own benefit, the tangled web of geopolitics has exacerbated the brutality of its war

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Reuters
Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Reuters

Barely had a moment passed since millions in Idlib breathed a sigh of relief before the latest disaster in Syria’s war struck. Regime air defences yesterday shot down a Russian plane, reportedly mistaking it for an Israeli jet and killing 15 on board. Although Russia blamed Israel, the Syrian regime downing an aircraft belonging to its closest ally is, in many ways, the perfect encapsulation of how tangled the Syrian war has become. It was reminiscent of the day in November 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane, which, like numerous other potentially cataclysmic moments in this seven-year conflict, was eventually trumped by a series of fresh calamities.

The world's media, meanwhile, has reacted to news out of Sochi on Monday after a deal was reached between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan to create a demilitarised zone in Idlib, in order to separate regime troops from rebel forces.

It might offer a temporary reprieve for residents of Idlib, who have been deserted by the world, bombarded with Russian and regime bombs and exploited by myriad rebel groups.

When the demilitarised zone comes into effect, Idlib’s residents might be spared the worst of the regime’s arsenal.

It also allows Ankara to negotiate with rebel groups and keep millions of refugees away from its borders. And it cements Moscow’s power over the regime of President Bashar Al Assad, guaranteeing that Russia retains its strategic military bases in Syria.

But while a humanitarian catastrophe has been temporarily averted, the Sochi deal has added yet another level of complexity. And so too has the accidental downing of the Russian plane.

Quite apart from its dreadful humanitarian consequences, the continued militarisation of the situation in Syria is a geopolitical and strategic quagmire of epic proportions.

As defenceless Syrian civilians watch on, world powers are carving up the country to no one’s benefit but their own.

Although millions have been killed and displaced, Syria is just one part of Turkish and Russian foreign policy. Meanwhile Syria’s sovereignty lies in tatters, as its lack of representation at the Sochi meeting illustrated.

It is time to draw a line and demand a concerted effort to untangle the web of interests, armies and factions that have exacerbated this brutal war at every turn.

Yet since international powers, including the US, have reverted to purely tokenistic gestures in Syria, only Russia, Turkey and Iran have retained any leverage.

All must understand that keeping Mr Al Assad in power will not improve Syria’s turmoil. Nor will a bilateral deal between two of the conflict’s pre-eminent belligerents.

Following the meeting, Mr Putin ironically declared it “will help peace to return to Syrian soil”. Although an imminent assault has been averted, today is still a tragic day for the Syrian people, who have fallen victim once again to the callous scheming of self-interested third parties.

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