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Leveraging Resolution
Leveraging Resolution
Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?
Are There Alternatives to a Military Victory in Idlib?

Leveraging Resolution

Originally published in IP Journal

With the Cyprus question still in apparent gridlock, it is a patch of recent history that has been strangely forgotten: on April 24, 2004, Turkish Cypriots voted overwhelmingly (65 percent) to reunify with the Greek Cypriot majority and to create a new Republic of Cyprus in order to join the EU. This was under the United Nations’ Annan Plan, backed by the EU, the US, Turkey, and even the government of Greece. But against everyone’s expectations, the Greek Cypriots voted even more overwhelmingly (76 percent) against the settlement. 

In principle, the EU should have suspended the accession process until the island was reunited – as the bloc’s own rules about unresolved border problems clearly indicate. But, partly due to Greece’s support for Cyprus, and partly due to the Turkish side’s past intransigence, the EU had already allowed Cyprus to sign a Treaty of Accession a year before. There was no legal way out without stopping the whole ten-country eastern expansion the following week. Instead, the EU offered Turkish Cypriots small compensation for the great blow dealt to them – the right to export tax-free to EU markets. 

Even when Greek Cypriots used their membership to block this “direct trade” gesture, Turkey remained determined to continue its own EU accession process. In part because of Turkey’s positive contribution to the efforts to resolve the Cyprus issue, the EU accepted a starting date for negotiations of October 2005. And yet, Ankara did block the expansion of the Turkish-EU customs union to Greek Cypriots, responding to the way the EU had bowed to Greek Cypriot pressure and withheld direct trade for Turkish Cypriots. By 2009, half of Turkey’s EU negotiating chapters were stuck behind this road block. That situation persists. 

The Alternative Cyprus Dynamic: Trade First 

So, what if – as some hoped at the time – the Nordic states had risen up in 2005 against this injustice to the Turkish Cypriots? Their determined stance might have attracted supporters, including the UK and southern Europeans keen to have more of a voice in an EU dominated by Germany and France. Together they might have managed to force through the direct-trade measure for Turkish Cypriots. 

Such action to preserve the integrity of the EU’s enlargement policy would have looked minor and rear-guard at the time, given the prize already won by Cyprus and Greece. But implementation of direct trade for Turkish Cypriots would have made all the difference: Turkey’s willingness to trade with Greek Cypriots would have increased. And after some nervous hiccups, trade, air traffic, and trust would have begun to expand between Turkey and the Republic of Cyprus. 

Low-cost package-tour hotels on Cyprus, long out of fashion for most Europeans, could well have attracted a new generation of Turkish tourists (just as the Aegean Sea islands have been wowing upmarket Turkish visitors since Turkey-Greece normalization in 1999). Greek Cypriots would have quickly oriented themselves to Istanbul, not least thanks to poles of attraction like the ecumenical Greek Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople. (This, by the way, is not pure science fiction: the signs are actually there today in real-world Cyprus. Despite bitter official condemnation of the “illegal” Turkish Cypriot airport, each week thousands of Greek Cypriots use both it and Turkish air carriers to travel more cheaply through Istanbul to the world. A handful of Greek-Cypriot pilots even work for Turkish Airlines.) 

Trade would also have boomed as Greek Cypriots took advantage of low supermarket prices, thanks to imports from Turkey. The large Cyprus-registered tanker fleet would have taken its share of activity at the Turkish oil pipeline terminal at Ceyhan. At the same time, the Greek Cypriot section of Nicosia would have experienced a rapid inflow of representative offices of international companies doing business in the Turkish market and elsewhere in the region. They would have been attracted to Cyprus’s low-tax, low-cost business base with a wide pool of well-educated Turkish and English speakers and quick local air connections. 

Politics Follows 

Politically, the change of atmosphere after five years would have been remarkable. As trust on the part of Greek Cypriots rose, their media would have entertained the idea of a compromise settlement. Greek Cypriot and Turkish officials would have stopped scoring points against each other – no longer setting out unilateral, maximalist dreams or frittering away the years in UN talks of full federation that polls show neither side really wants – and begun talking about what they were actually ready to accept. 

Indeed it would not have been surprising if all sides had finally shown a little flexibility, entering into talks without already having committed to a particular outcome. After all, the negotiators have long known that any settlement will look pretty much like today’s status quo, coming somewhere between a light federation and a two-state solution. 

At the very least, Greek Cypriots, no longer so fearful of Turkey, might make a key concession. They would have accepted more easily that if the two sides really were to try a federal arrangement, the Turkish Cypriots could have the right to a “prenuptial agreement.” Such an arrangement, specifying that the Turkish Cypriots would have sovereign rights if the federal system broke down, would give the Turkish Cypriots a safety net, allaying their fears of being trapped in an abusive relationship or any new federation breaking down in bloodshed (as it did in the 1960s). Greek Cypriots today fear a “prenup” would see them sleepwalk to a separate state. But Turkish Cypriots more or less have that state already, de facto, and a Greek Cypriot concession on such an agreement would encourage them to negotiate more sincerely on a federal package. 

Once able to communicate openly with and gain some trust from the Greek Cypriot side, Turkish leaders might well point out that if Nicosia would go a step further and agree to a two-state settlement, Ankara would withdraw all troops and drop its demand for guaranteed oversight of the Greek Cypriot zone. They might perhaps even offer to give up more territory than that gained by the traditional offer to shrink the Turkish Cypriot zone from 37 percent to 29 percent of the island. They would likely also accept that the natural gas-rich territorial waters off the southern part of the island would be placed fully under Greek Cypriot ownership, a gesture that would constitute valuable compensation for Greek Cypriots’ sense of grievance about losing the north of the island. 

The Turkish Cypriots’ own condition for this two-state settlement would likely have been a guarantee that the 300,000 people now living legally in the Turkish Cypriot zone would – whatever their origin –have the right to citizenship in an independent state, and that this new state would have the right to start negotiating for European Union membership. In this case, Turkish Cypriots might have fewer reservations about Greek Cypriots’ right to buy new property in the north than would be the case under a federal arrangement. A two-state settlement would also mark a clean break with the past, allowing for clear rules about compensation for lost property (Greek Cypriots have title to three-quarters of the land in the north and Turkish Cypriots have title to a tenth of the land in the south). 

Under the EU umbrella, this greater sense of confidence would have allowed for a more imaginative future for the ghost resort of Varosha, which would likely be handed back to the Greek Cypriot side in any version of a settlement. A public company – much like Lebanon’s Solidere, which rebuilt the war-wrecked heart of Beirut – could propose to take over the whole area, demolishing the many unusable structures and rebuilding the beach resort to take its place once again as Cyprus’s premier tourist destination. Existing owners would be issued shares in the overall enterprise, as would those who financed the rebuilding. Turkish international contracting companies would be natural bidders to do much of the work. 

With a better atmosphere on the island of Cyprus, the group of smaller EU states that saved the day in 2005 might also have been able to take a lead in ensuring that the EU-Turkey relationship stayed on course, staging interventions in both Ankara and Brussels to build communication and trust. Even more importantly, it could have created a sense of common purpose to block the trend of suborning EU policies like enlargement to narrow national interests. Choosing their battles carefully, the group might have been able to mobilize a critical mass of member states on issues of common moral interest, especially when crises threatened stability in the Middle East and North Africa. Indeed some might have come to believe that this 2005 Cyprus moment marked the point where the EU at last learned to fill the supranational role that its founding fathers had hoped and planned for.

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.