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Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?
Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?
Report 201 / Europe & Central Asia

Cyprus: Reunification or Partition ?

Three decades of efforts to reunify Cyprus are about to end, leaving a stark choice ahead between a hostile, de facto partition of the island and a collaborative federation between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities living in two constituent states.

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Executive Summary

Three decades of efforts to reunify Cyprus are about to end, leaving a stark choice ahead between a hostile, de facto partition of the island and a collaborative federation between the Greek and Turkish Cypriot communities living in two constituent states. Most actors agree that the window of opportunity for this bicommunal, bizonal settlement will close by April 2010, the date of the next Turkish Cypriot elections, when the pro-settlement leader risks losing his office to a more hardline candidate. If no accord is reached by then, it will be the fourth major set of UN-facilitated peace talks to fail, and there is a widespread feeling that if the current like-minded, pro-solution Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders cannot compromise on a federal solution, nobody can. To avoid the heavy costs this would entail for all concerned, the two leaders should stand shoulder to shoulder to overcome domestic cynicism and complete the talks, Turkey and Greece must break taboos preventing full communication with both sides on the island, and European Union (EU) states must rapidly engage in support of the process to avoid the potential for future instability if they complacently accept continuation of the dispute.

A real chance still exists in 2009-2010 to end the division in Cyprus in conformity with the long-established negotiating parameters of a federal reunification. The current Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders share more common ground than any of their predecessors and have gone some distance over the past year toward a comprehensive settlement. But failure will mean an indefinite partition of the island, leading to more strains in EU-Turkey relations, new frictions in the east Mediterranean, less EU-NATO cooperation, acceleration of the centrifugal forces scattering the Turkish Cypriots and new risks to the prosperity and security of Greek Cypriots.

Many Cypriots expect that de facto partition would be a benign continuation of the status quo. New dynamics already in play following the Greek Cypriots’ 2004 entry into the EU as the Republic of Cyprus show this to be false. Greek Cypriots have become the most visible technical obstacle to Turkey’s EU accession process and have eagerly used all the levers available to them to pursue what they see as their national interest and need for justice. Ankara’s frustrations are contributing to frictions over offshore oil exploration rights, including in waters disputed with Greece, that have brought opposing gunboats into close proximity. Today’s stronger, more prosperous Turkey is more ready than in the past to defy the EU and risk irreversible damage to the relationship over what it also sees as issues of national interest and justice. This faultline will be tested again in discussions leading up to December’s EU summit, in which the heads of state and government (the European Council) must decide what to do about Turkey’s failure to implement its signed obligation to open its ports to Greek Cypriot air and sea traffic.

In the absence of a Cyprus settlement, both communities on the island and Turkey will experience slower economic progress, greater defence spending and reduced international credibility. The paradox is that rarely before have there been Greek Cypriot, Turkish Cypriot and Turkish leaders so ready to compromise. A major source of misunderstanding, however, is that Ankara and Greek Cypriot officials cannot agree grounds to talk directly. They are thus unable to believe, trust or understand each other’s genuine ambition to settle the dispute. Overcoming four decades of hostility, denigration in the media and absence of real mutual knowledge will be hard in the few remaining months, but all sides should try to bridge the gap. If a strong government emerges from the 4 October elections in Greece, it will be uniquely well placed to bring all the relevant parties together, and it should quickly do so.

There are rays of hope. Polls show that most Cypriots want the talks to succeed, even if they are sceptical about that happening. Negotiations over the past year have gone relatively well. After the victory of pro-compromise Demetris Christofias in the February 2008 Greek Cypriot presidential election, he and his likeminded Turkish Cypriot counterpart, Mehmet Ali Talat, have worked through the issues in more than 40 meetings. A second round of full negotiations began well on 10 September 2009. Christofias and Talat must do much more, however, to reflect the positive energy of their meetings in their public statements and to build a joint strategy for success in a referendum on a settlement document that needs to be held in early 2010.

The two sides should indicate willingness to bargain across issues in the talks that seem insoluble on their own. These include the multi-billion euro issue of compensation for or restitution of Greek Cypriot properties, involving perhaps three quarters of the territory of the Turkish Cypriot north; the future of immigrants from Turkey, probably soon a majority of residents of the Turkish Cypriot zone; the Turkish Cypriot wish, backed by Turkey, for a continued Turkish military guarantee; and the question of how much of the 37 per cent of the island now in Turkish hands will pass to the Greek Cypriots.

Outside powers arguably have half the keys to a Cyprus solution in their hands. EU member states in particular should do more to make a solution possible by pro-actively reassuring Turkey that its accession perspective remains open, firmly encouraging Christofias and Talat and talking up the clear advantages of settlement. They should do much more to impress on the Cypriots and regional players that complacency and cynicism must be set aside and that the hard work to prepare public opinion and workable compromises must start now. Neither Christofias or Talat has any desire to walk away from the negotiating table. The danger is that they will simply run out of time.

Nicosia/Istanbul/Brussels, 30 September 2009

Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?

Originally published in Valdai

Last weekend, the presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia met in Ankara to discuss, among other things, the latest developments in Syria amid Turkish concerns over the consequences of a Syrian government offensive in the last rebel enclave, Idlib. 

The Russian-backed offensive against that last opposition enclave is aimed at keeping the rebels at arm’s length from the Russian air base in Latakia, re-opening the Damascus-Aleppo highway and eventually retaking the city of Idlib, the provincial capital that has been held by the rebels since 2015. As such and for the past six months, much of Idlib and its environs have been under intense attack from the Syrian Arab Army on the ground and Russian warplanes in the air. The government forces have been able to seize strategic villages, including the medieval fortress town of Qalaat al-Madiq, a major crossing point into Idlib, and the towns of Kafr Nabudah and Khan Shaykhoun. The long-dreaded offensive has left 1,089 civilians dead and 600,000 displaced.

In September 2017, the three Astana guarantors, (Turkey, Iran, and Russia), negotiated a partial ceasefire in Idlib under a “de-escalation” agreement, monitored on the opposition side through twelve Turkish military outposts deployed along a blurry deconfliction line between the rebels and government forces. A year later, a deal between Turkey and Russia, announced in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, headed off a seemingly imminent Syrian army offensive and reinforced the earlier deal. The Turkish-Russian agreement tacitly committed Turkey to oversee the withdrawal of jihadis along with all heavy weapons, tanks, rockets systems and mortars held by all rebel groups from a 15-20 km “demilitarised zone” bordering government-controlled areas, and allowed the re-opening of the Latakia-Aleppo and Damascus-Aleppo highways, which pass through Idlib.

The fate of Idlib Governorate and its three million inhabitants could be determined by the leaders of the Astana trio.

Ankara and Moscow, however, remain at odds over the interpretations of the Sochi deal and its implementation. Moscow has made clear that a de-escalation arrangement is by no means a permanent alternative to the eventual return of the state to north west Syria. On the other hand, Turkey views the deal primarily as a tool to prevent a Syrian offensive on Idlib, and preserve a “de-escalation zone” out of Syrian government control until a broader political settlement can be reached for the eight-year old Syria crisis. As such, Turkey has agreed that moderate rebel groups would be separated from radicals and the latter would lay down arms and move out of a defined demilitarised zone. However, Moscow and Ankara remain at loggerheads over which rebel groups in Idlib should be designated as terrorists. When the agreement was announced, Hai’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), a group formerly linked to al Qaeda, controlled around 50% of Idlib Governorate; today they control almost all of it. Ankara believes that much of HTS is fundamentally pragmatic and a potential ally for eliminating radical transnational jihadists, while Russia treats HTS uniformly as a terrorist group, and describes the Sochi ceasefire as conditional upon HTS’s removal from the demilitarised zone and “separation” from the armed opposition. In terms of implementation, Turkey claims that they have successfully rolled back jihadis and cleared the demilitarized zone of all heavy weaponry. On the other hand, the Russian Ministry of Defence has stated that HTS attempted to attack Russia’s Hmeimim Airbase twelve times in April 2019 using unmanned aerial vehicles.

The fate of Idlib Governorate and its three million inhabitants could be determined by the leaders of the Astana trio. It is no secret that if Russia greenlights an all-out offensive, an opposition-led infantry ground force will not be able to stop it. Nonetheless, a military solution in Idlib would still be exceptionally costly for all parties, Russia included. Retaking Idlib militarily would strain Moscow’s relations with Turkey and would require force levels that could only inevitably lead to a bloodbath in the densely-populated province. More significantly, capturing Idlib militarily would risk scattering jihadi militants now inside Idlib across Syria, and globally, including into post-Soviet states. If Russia hopes to avoid that, it needs to consider an alternative to a catastrophic military victory.

Today, a return to the existing Sochi understanding will do little good, in part because – to acknowledge an uncomfortable reality – any agreement that is to prove sustainable needs to address the divergent views between Russia and Turkey over some of the key actors in Idlib, including HTS. Russia can help the Syrian government crush Idlib, if it so chooses, and if it is willing to absorb the grave cost of victory, including thousands of jihadis scattered across Syria and beyond. If it hopes to spare itself that cost, however, it needs to consider alternatives to a military victory, which would have grave security consequences.