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Rumours of Putin-Erdogan Syria ceasefire deal sweep Middle East

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - SEPTEMBER 23: Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attend an opening ceremony for the newly restored Moscow Cathedral Mosque on September 23, 2015 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

Reports appearing in the Middle East media are claiming that Russia and Turkey have bilaterally agreed the terms of a ceasefire in the Syrian conflict.

The reports have not been officially confirmed, but according to the Iranian news agency Fars, they originate with the Turkish language Anadolu news agency.

Further details of the supposed ceasefire agreement have been provided by the Al-Masdar news agency, which is known to have sources within the Syrian military.  It reports the terms of the ceasefire agreement as follows:

The nationwide ceasefire will begin at midnight on December 29th and will include all areas that do not have a jihadist presence. Specifically, the ceasefire will not be implemented in areas where the so-called “Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham” (ISIS) and Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra Front) are present.

Turkey, who facilitated the entry of these jihadist groups in Syria, has agreed to allow the Russian and Syrian forces to continue their military operations against ISIS and Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, per this latest ceasefire deal. In return for Turkey’s compliance, the Syrian government will organise aid convoys to deliver humanitarian assistance to civilians in the besieged towns of Madaya and Al-Zabadani.

If there really is such a ceasefire agreement, and if Al-Masdar is reporting its terms correctly, then it represents a radical shift in position by the Turkish government. As Al-Masdar says, Turkey “facilitated the entry of these Jihadist groups in Syria”. In fact Turkey did much more than this. It has acted throughout the Syrian conflict as their main supporter and arms supplier. Suffice to say that as recently as 9th August 2016, President Erdogan in an interview with the Russian news agency TASS, was not only reaffirming Turkey’s continued support for Jabhat Al-Nusra, but was even denying that it was a terrorist organisation.

“Considering that the Al-Nusra front is also fighting against the Islamic State, it should not be considered as a terrorist organisation either. This is an incorrect approach,” Erdogan noted.

If President Erdogan really has decided to withdraw Turkey’s previous support for Jabhat Al-Nusra, then one can only wonder at the pressure the Russians have put him under. It remains to be seen whether that is really so, and if so, whether he will honour his word on it.

If Turkey really is about to withdraw its previous support for Jabhat Al-Nusra (ie. Al-Qaeda in Syria) then this could potentially be a key game changer in the war. Though it is inevitably ISIS which attracts the most attention because of the highly public and grotesque way it carries out its various murders, it is Al-Qaeda in Syria which in reality has been the Syrian government’s most dangerous opponent during the Syrian war.

It was Al-Qaeda, for example, which was in effective control of the Jihadis in eastern Aleppo. It is difficult to see how the Al-Qaeda can defend Idlib – its last major holdout in Syria – without Turkish support. President Assad has already hinted that Idlib is likely to be the next target of the Syrian and Russian militaries. If Al-Qaeda loses Idlib, it will have lost the war. If Turkey is indeed going to allow the Syrian and Russian militaries to defeat Al-Qaeda in Syria, then this will finally secure Syria’s survival, ending the main part of the war, and leaving the Syrian military free to take the war to ISIS in the desert regions of Syria’s east.

Whether any of this is really going to happen remains to be seen. As to whether there really is going to be a joint Russian-Turkish ceasefire announcement, we should know that within the next few hours. The one point I would make about all these rumours is that it is a matter of public record that there have been intense discussions underway between the Russian and Turkish leadership over the last few weeks.

There have been no fewer than six reported telephone conversations between Russian President Putin and Turkish President Erdogan over the course of December, and President Putin has also hosted in Moscow Turkish Prime Minister Binadli Yildirim, who visited Russia on 6th December 2016. In addition to Putin’s conversations and meetings with Turkish leaders, the Russian and Turkish Foreign Ministers, Sergey Lavrov and Mevlut Cavusoglu, appear to be in regular contact, whilst Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu is known to have had at least one conversation with the head of Turkey’s Military Intelligence Agency.

These are of course only the contacts that the two countries have made public. Quite possibly there have been many others we know nothing of. Whilst it is not possible to say this for certain, such an intense level of contact between two governments does suggest some sort of negotiation between them.

Whether that is actually the case, and whether that negotiation has born fruit, we will no doubt find out within the next few hours.

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