Turkish and Russian presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, met at a summit meeting on September 17, 2018 in the Russian city of Sochi, reaching an agreement to maintain the de-escalation zone in Idlib. The deal prevented a military offensive on Idlib and established a demilitarized zone. It follows the failure of a tripartite summit in Tehran on September 7 to reach an agreement on the future of the governorate. Idlib has become the last bastion of the Syrian opposition forces, after losing Eastern Gouta, the northern Homs countryside and the Southwest, which includes parts of the Deraa, Quneitra and Sweida governorates.
Terms of the Agreement
According to the two presidents’ press conference announcement, the agreement stipulates the establishment of a demilitarized zone between the opposition fighters and the Syrian regime forces by 15 October 2018, with a width of 15 to 20 kilometers, and the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the demilitarized zone by 10 October. The agreement also stipulates the Russian side's commitment to ensuring no military operations would be carried out in Idlib in exchange for the removal of extremist groups from the demilitarized zone and the guarantee of free movement, restored trade and economic links, and restored transit traffic on the routes M4 (Aleppo-Latakia) and M5 (Aleppo-Hama) by the end of 2018. The two sides also affirmed their determination to combat all forms and manifestations of terrorism in Syria and to take effective measures to ensure a sustainable ceasefire within the de-escalation zone of Idlib. Turkey and Russia will conduct coordinated military patrols to monitor the agreement's commitment to use drones along the demilitarized zone.
Russian Change of Heart
The agreement came as a surprise following the Tehran Summit, which saw a public quarrel between the Russian and Turkish Presidents. Turkey insisted on the need to respect the de-escalation process in Idlib, within the framework of the Astana agreement reached in early May 2017, safeguarding the province from a military offense that could lead to a large scale human tragedy. The govenorate hosts an estimated 3 million civilians, most of whom have been displaced from other parts of Syria. Russia, on the other hand, refused any call for a ceasefire or to provide more time to reach a settlement. This refusal fits within the framework of its joint efforts with Tehran to restore the Syrian regime, and eliminate the military opposition, before negotiating any political solution to the conflict in Syria.
A number of factors have contributed to reversing Russia's rejection of a political settlement. The most important of these is that a major military operation in Idlib would inevitably lead to the collapse of the Astana process. Astana is under intense pressure in the face of the working group on Syria, which includes the original 5 members- USA, France, Britain, Saudi Arabia and Jordan - who have now been joined by Germany and Egypt. The group has recently resumed its activity by issuing a set of principles on resolving the conflict in Syria, one which opposes the Russian approach based on a dual constitution and elections. The Idlib agreement allowed Moscow to salvage the Astana process, which Turkey had threatened to withdraw from if Russia undertook a major military operation on Idlib. This would have undermined any chance of a political solution in line with the Russian vision for Syria.
In a broader strategic context, it became clear that a major military operation in Idlib would have necessarily undone all of Moscow's efforts to pull Turkey away from the embrace of the West. These efforts have persisted since the failed coup attempt of July 2016, including attempts to tie Russia to Turkey with trade and energy agreements, and supplying Turkey with the S-400 missile system, which aroused widespread concern in the West and among NATO allies.
For its part, Turkey demonstrated the importance it attaches to Idlib with a solid resistance to any military offence in the region. Not only did Ankara declare its opposition to the attack - as it has done with the other de-escalation zones- but it mobilized tens of thousands of troops within the zone and on the border, proving Idlib to be a red line. The mounting international warnings of a bloodbath in Idlib may have also contributed to a settlement. Despite his usual disregard, large numbers of civilian casualties would have put a strain on Putin. His strategy in recent weeks has centered on refugee repatriation and reconstruction, in an attempt to obtain international support in this regard, and also as a means of rehabilitating the Assad regime and restoring its legitimacy.
Turkey offered a proposal for a settlement, endowing Moscow with an important aspect of the goals it was seeking to achieve from a military operation, but without fighting. The establishment of a demilitarized zone between 15 and 20 kilometers and the transfer of opposition factions to the north provide protection for the Russian Khmeimim air base, which has recently been subjected to regular drones attacks launched from areas controlled by the opposition in Idlib. Turkey has also pledged to dismantle extremist organizations in Idlib — another important goal for Moscow. The Syrian regime also made gains from the agreement: it opened the international road between Latakia and Aleppo and between Hama and Aleppo, the country's main trade route. Erdogan has won the Russian endorsement of Turkey's influence in Idlib and has preserved his own interests, be that the displacement of hundreds of thousands of refugees or maintaining the opposition factions as an important force to apply pressure in the direction of a political solution.
A final, important factor contributing to the agreement is the Iranian absence. Previous experience has shown that Russia and Turkey better understand each other when Tehran is not a party. This happened in the Aleppo Agreement of December 2016 (which was ultimately disastrous for the Syrian opposition) and the agreement to de-escalate in Idlib in September 2017, as well as other occasions.
If Russia is able to market the deal to its allies (Iran and the Syrian regime), the most significant challenges to its implementation would likely come from the Turkish side, and the extent of its ability to market the deal and push some of the hardline groups in Idlib to implement it. Idlib hosts a number of organizations that could be an obstacle to the implementation of the agreement. The most important of these are Tahrir al-Sham, the Guardians of Religion Organization, the Turkistan Islamic Party in Syria to name but a few.
Tahrir al-Sham (formerly Al-Nusra front) is the largest organization that can stand in the way of the agreement. It boasts an estimated 12 - 15,000 fighters. It controls almost half the area of the province, including its center. Since the establishment of the Idlib de-escalation zone in agreement with Russia in September 2017, Turkey has worked within the Astana process to try to dismantle Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham and isolate its radical (foreign) wing from the moderates. Syrians make up about ninety percent of the organization. It remains unclear how successful Turkish efforts have been to separate the hardline and moderate elements of the organization, although reports claim that some elements have joined the moderate opposition groups supported by Turkey.
Tahrir al-Sham has not yet issued any official statement clarifying its position on the Idlib Agreement. However, the leaders of the "immigrants" in the organization rejected the Russian-Turkish agreement and pledged to continue fighting in Idlib. Tahrir al-Sham maintains a huge arsenal of tanks and heavy artillery and its fighters are deployed across the Damascus-Aleppo International Highway and several locations near the Bab Al-Hawa crossing. The Harim Mountains in the north of Idlib Governorate are considered their most important strongholds.
The Guardians of Religion Organization formed in February 2018 after splitting off from Tahrir al-Sham and declaring its loyalty to Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Its jihadist nucleus is foreign, with many of its ranks made up of those who fought in Afghanistan and Iraq. It has attracted elements from ISIL from Idlib and Deir al-Zour. The organization, estimated to have about 1,200 fighters, rejected the Russian-Turkish agreement, and issued a statement making a rallying call against what it called the “Dayton Agreement”, in a reference to the Bosnia peace settlement of 1995. The organization is expected to be an obstacle to the implementation of the agreement, especially since its fighters are deployed in areas in the western countryside of Idlib and the northern Latakia countryside.
The third organization is the Turkistan Islamic Party, most of whose fighters are from the East Turkestan (or Xinjiang) region of western China. The organization, founded in Syria in June 2014, is affiliated with Al Qaeda and the number of fighters is estimated to be about 2300. Their soldiers are deployed in Jisr al-Shughur and other areas along the border of Idlib and Latakia. The party has not yet stated its position on the agreement, but is expected to adopt the position of Tahrir al-Sham because of their proximity and alliance.
A number of other extremist factions have rejected the agreement, including Ansar al-Din, Ansar Al-Furqan, and Ansar al-Tawhid but their numbers are not notable. Tahrir al-Sham remains the most important and its stance entails significant implications in view of its size and influence in Idlib. It seems that Turkey has taken it upon itself to deal with each faction that would impede the implementation of the Idlib agreement, in return for Russia and its allies refraining from a large-scale attack on Idlib under the pretext of eliminating extremist organizations. This means that the possibility of a military clash between factions opposed to the Idlib agreement and Turkey and its allied Syrian factions will increase during the coming period, if these factions were to resist the agreement. Demonstrating its intention to implement the agreement, Turkey sent large military reinforcements to the de-escalation zone in Idlib, including tanks and armored vehicles to transport soldiers.
The Idlib Agreement represented a new milestone in the cooperation between the Russian and Turkish presidents, beginning in Syria after the failed July 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. Although Russia used its rapprochement with Turkey as a cover to militarily resolve the conflict on the ground in favor of the regime, it seemed more interested in Turkish sensitivity about the border areas. In August 2016, Moscow permitted Ankara to launch Operation Euphrates Shield in the Jarablus/Al-Bab/Azaz triangle to expel ISIL and establish a safe zone there. Moscow also allowed Ankara to launch Operation Olive Branch in Afrin and to expel the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) in early 2018. The Idlib Agreement represents a third phase in this cooperation, but it faces challenges. Resistance is expected from some militant factions against Turkish efforts to establish a demilitarized zone in Idlib and to dismantle their presence, as is the possible emergence of Iranian attempts to undermine the agreement.
In any case, the agreement does not represent a change in the course of the Syrian conflict. It is not a turning point, but a temporary respite for Idlib, which hosts about three million civilians, avoiding a bloody battle until regional and international understandings about a political solution in Syria become clear. Currently, the restoration of Syrian regime tyranny is under way and the challenge for Syrian and international forces opposing this regime lies in thwarting this process and disputing its legitimacy.
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