What the Russia-Turkey Idlib agreement reveals about the Syrian conflict

Russia and Turkey signed an agreement to prevent a Syrian regime offensive in Idlib this week.

The agreement will create a large demilitarized zone and is supposed to lead to “radical terrorist groups” by October 15. The full text of the agreement was published on Wednesday by The National. Iran was not a party to the agreement and this will signal to Washington, Israel and others that Iran’s role in Syria may have been sidelined. However the agreement does not spell out how “terrorist” groups will be removed from parts of Idlib or which groups must be removed, leaving open the possibility of future conflict.

 

Signed on September 17 in Sochi between Russian and Turkish delegations, a copy of the agreement was made in English and Russian and sent to US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley on September 18. A copy was also sent to UN Secretary General Antonia Guterres by Vassily Nebenzia, the Russian Federation’s representative to the UN. The name of the document is the Memorandum on Stabilization of the Situation in the Idlib De-Escalation Area.

 

Russia and Turkey made the agreement and are guarantors of the “observance of the ceasefire.” This is important because other players in Syria are not listed. Iran, which is an ally of the Syrian regime, is not a guarantor. Neither is the United States or the Coalition which plays a role in eastern Syria. Neither is the Syrian government of Bashar Assad or the various Syrian rebel and extremist groups in Idlib. This represents the degree to which the Syrian conflict has been outsourced to Turkey and Russia and they have become the guarantors of both sides. Russia is the Syrian regime’s main ally and Turkey is the main alley of the Syrian rebels. Turkey controls several areas in northern Syria, including in Idlib, Afrin and near Jarabulus.

 

The document says it follows similar “deescalation” agreements that have been in place in Idlib since 2017. They have helped reduce the fighting in northern Syria and allowed the Syrian regime to concentrate on defeating rebels in Damascus and the south. After the regime successfully took back areas near Jordan and the Golan, it has wanted to re-conquer Idlib from the rebels and extremist groups. However the US has warned Assad against using chemical weapons and the UN has warned of a humanitarian catastrophe that could affect millions.

 

According to the 10 points of the agreement, “the Idlib deescalation area will be preserved and Turkish observation points will be fortified and continue to function.” In addition Russia says it will take all necessary steps to avoid military operations and attacks on Idlib.

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A demilitarized zone (DMZ) 15-20 km deep will be established and the exact lines of the zone will be determined in the future. “Radical terrorist groups” will be removed from the DMZ by October 15. According to point six of the document “all tanks, MLRS [Multiple Rocket Launch Systems], artillery and mortars belonging to conflicting parties will be withdrawn from the demilitarized zone by October 10.” There will be coordinated patrols and drones will be used to monitor the DMZ. Of particular importance to the Syrian regime transit on route M4 from Aleppo to Latakia and M5 from Aleppo to Hama will be restored by the end of the year.

 

The document has two key points that appear difficult to carry out in the time provided. By October 10 it envisions heavy weapons being withdrawn and by October 15 “terrorist groups” will be removed. The document doesn’t specify which groups but Russia and the Syrian regime view Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) as the main terrorist group in Idlib. HTS is linked to what used to be Al-Qaeda in Syria. The US also views HTS as a terrorist group and Turkey labeled it a terrorist group in late August. However Turkish observation points in Idlib are in areas where HTS is present. By not mentioning HTS directly the document allows for some flexibility, but it is not clear how Turkey will remove HTS or other extremist groups.

 

The depth of the DMZ takes up a large part of Idlib province, almost twenty percent of the area currently under the control of the rebels and extremists. It is also unclear how the M4 from Aleppo to Latakia will be opened to traffic, but if the agreement is adhered to it means that “free movement of local residents and goods” will begin between the government and rebel controlled areas. This will reduce the humanitarian catastrophe that many warned about in the lead-up to any sort of regime offensive in Idlib.

 

The agreement represents a major step in northern Syria and shows how Turkey and Russia have grown closer. It also shows how Iran has been excluded from the table. Iran was part of the Astana discussions and has played a key role in other agreements, but it was not present in Sochi. This may be merely symbolic but it also shows how Moscow and Ankara now view themselves as the main deciders of Syria’s future. For the US and Israel this is preferable development since both Washington and Jerusalem have opposed Iran’s role in Syria.

 

The Idlib agreement leaves unresolved what will happen to Afrin, the mostly Kurdish area north of Idlib. In January Turkey launched an offensive into Afrin with the support of the Syrian rebels. Ankara said it was trying to clear Afrin of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) which Ankara views as a terrorist organization linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). But Kurds have been dismayed by changes in Afrin and complain of abuses. When the Syrian regime was planning the Idlib offensive some Kurds were hopeful the regime would retake Afrin and they could return to some kind of autonomy. Now with that off the table the Kurds in eastern Syria who are working closely with the US will see that the regime cannot fulfill its promises of retaking Afrin.

 

Previous agreements like this have come and gone over the course of the Syrian conflict. For instance there was supposed to be a deescalation zone in southern Syria, including a ceasefire signed by the US and Russia and Jordan in July 2017. The regime, with its Russian ally, tossed away the agreement when Damascus decided to launch its offensive in the summer of 2018.

Time will tell if the Idlib agreement lasts as long as the southern Syria ceasefire.

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