Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Trusting Russia to keep its word in Syria is rather like believing in good faith that its intelligence agents only visited the UK to see Salisbury Cathedral.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s new peace plan – forged with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan – to protect the three million civilians crowded in camps in Idlib is staggeringly hard to take at face value for a multitude of reasons – not least, because of Putin’s history of denying all allegations against him, despite the mountain of compelling evidence.
Only last week, Putin sided with the implausible story told by two of his military intelligence agents, claiming that they were only in the UK as tourists. British authorities have amassed tomes of evidence implicating them in a brazen attempt to commit murder.
Such is Putin’s disdain for truth, his sudden peace plan in Idlib can only be read as a cynical attempt to dodge what would have been a barrage of condemnation at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) next week.
Without President Donald Trump pushing the US to stand in his way, Putin can run roughshod over all reasonable objections to start the final battle for Idlib.
His use of Turkey’s autocratic leader to help pull the wool over the international community’s eyes smacks not just of opportunism, but also a strategic resolve to draw this NATO partner out of the alliance.
In the long run, this would translate to Russia’s influence in the region being bolstered. With allies Iran and Turkey supporting Moscow’s objectives in the Middle East, the ability of nations wishing to curtail Russia would be diminished.
And it’s this long-term goal that makes any Russian talk of short-term peace in Idlib impossible to take seriously.
Putin is defaulting to Russia’s tried-and-tested playbook: saying one thing while meaning something completely different.
To call this a deal is to stretch the meaning of the word “deal.” It is a plan that some parties in the conflict have not been engaged in and have not signed up to.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, describes it as a plan drawn up “per the Sochi agreement” last year, which happened outside the internationally agreed Geneva peace talks process.
That alone should be a warning to the world that Russia is going it alone and sidestepping the UN.
Cavusoglu says the deal ensures that “A 15-20 km wide area will be cleared of heavy weaponry. Civilians will remain. Only terrorists will be removed.”
However, there is no mention of where the terrorists will go – or precisely how they are defined. Russia and Turkey have had differences on this in the past.
Turkey’s Foreign Minister says “Idlib’s borders will be preserved,” and “Russia will take precautions to prevent the regime from entering and to prevent attacks,” which flies in the face of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s reaction to the plan.
Although Assad welcomes the deal, he is not backing down on his long-stated vow to continue the “war on terrorism until it liberates every inch of Syrian territory, whether by military operations or local reconciliation deals.”
The most worrying thing about this plan is not its language or its ambiguity, but in its nature and concept.
Handing over weapons rarely – if ever – happens without a comprehensive peace agreement. Take the IRA. Ultimately, long after the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the IRA finally agreed to “decommission” its weapons and “put them beyond use.”
The IRA didn’t hand them over to interlocutors because that, its leaders argued, would be an act of defeat. And in their minds, the conflict was neither lost nor won. The only circumstance in which weapons are given up is where one side is completely crushed.
What adds to the implausibility of the current deal is the time frame and lack of impartial brokers trusted by all sides.
During the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, heavy weapons dumps beyond the reach of the belligerents became one of the failed attempts to staunch the bloodletting in Bosnia’s three-year civil war.
Weapons were sometimes taken back at gunpoint, but getting people to give them up in the first place was never easy.
Having somebody hand over what they see as their only assured way of staying safe from attack is an argument that can only be won by force or by long discussions leading to equally lengthy confidence-building measures.
None of this appears factored into the Idlib plan. Or if it is, it isn’t being made public. Again, that should be an alarm bell that this plan is not what Russia says it is.
Russia is gaming the world. By dodging criticism at the UNGA, it gets to play the good guy and look like a vital power on the world stage.
Once the UNGA is over next week, there is little doubt about what is going to happen in Idlib – the fight will come.
It is no coincidence that the deadline for the enforcement of the buffer zone – October 15 – and the removal of heavy weapons from that zone falls after world leaders have left New York.
Whatever happens on the ground, the consequential criticism of Russia will sound scattered and muted. That the deal will break seems inevitable. What precisely triggers its collapse is harder to predict.
Looking to the future, it is impossible to imagine Assad tolerating Turkish troops on his soil as they are today. He and Erdogan, once close friends, are now bitter rivals.
As for the “terrorists” that the deal declares will have to leave, some radical Islamists may figure their running is over and make Idlib their Alamo.
Many have no reason to trust Putin and Assad, having already been forced to flee other Russian-declared safe zones that the Syrian regime – backed by Russian forces – ultimately overran.
We can expect in Idlib a rerun of what we have already seen in Chechnya, Georgia, Ukraine and other parts of Syria.
Russia is skewing facts allowing it to go after what it wants on the ground: Assad in complete power and the conflict reduced to a level that he can manage alone.
The rewards for Putin are Russian troops brought home, the hemorrhage of money to fund the war staunched and Russia’s name as a reliable ally indelibly etched in the minds of dictators and autocrats worldwide.
The Idlib deal is not built to last. And we should be clear and call it what it is: an ugly, cynical fig leaf.