Idlib agreement draws battle lines for next Turkish-Russian escalation

“In other words, this [Syria] ceasefire is likely to be as meaningless as all those that came before it," said Charles Lister.
Sunday 08/03/2020
Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan after their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow, March 5. (AP)
Opposite directions. Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan after their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow, March 5. (AP)

ISTANBUL - The ceasefire agreement for Idlib, struck March 5 in Moscow, seems to draw the battle lines for the next escalation between Turkey and Russia in Syria.

“I think the agreement is not strong enough and will not hold for a long time,” Mohannad Othman of the Al-Sham Humanitarian Foundation, an NGO active in Syria, said via e-mail a day after the Russian-Turkish deal was struck.

“I think what was produced yesterday is a status quo, where both sides accept a temporary situation as it is, and fighting will resume very soon,” he said.

The agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in effect cuts Idlib in half. The sector of the embattled Syrian province south of the M4 highway, which crosses Idlib from east to west, is to be controlled by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. The area north of the M4 will be under the control of various rebel groups, of which the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is the strongest, and of Turkey, which has sent thousands of soldiers into Idlib since early February.

Turkey is likely to try to turn the northern part of the province into a “safe zone” for hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled fighting in other parts of Idlib, the last rebel bastion in Syria after nine years of war.

Syria has seen many ceasefire agreements that broke down shortly after they were signed, however. The day after the Moscow agreement, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said nine rebel fighters and six Syrian government soldiers had been killed in fresh clashes.

Referring to the many jihadist formations that make up a major part of the Turkey-backed Syrian armed opposition, Russia and Syria say “terrorists” in Idlib must be stopped.

The Russian news agency Tass quoted Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova as saying that “as far as efforts to eliminate militants and terrorists go, if they are designated as such, they must be eradicated, first and foremost, by the Syrian Armed Forces and the forces of countries that legally cooperate with the Syrian authorities.”

Charles Lister, director of the Countering Terrorism and Extremism Programme at the Middle East Institute in Washington, said the remark by Zakharova indicated that the new truce might be short-lived.

“In other words, this [Syria] ceasefire is likely to be as meaningless as all those that came before it,” Lister wrote on Twitter.

Some refugees in Idlib also said they were not very hopeful and express scepticism about the commitment of Damascus and its Russian backers to the ceasefire.

The main goal of Russia, Assad’s main backer, is to secure a victory by the Syrian Army in Idlib, which would seal Assad’s triumph over his adversaries nine years after the Syrian war began. Success in helping Assad to regain control of the whole country would be a major strategic win for Russia, cementing the country’s new role as a Middle East power broker as the influence of the United States in the region wanes.

The clash between Moscow’s priorities and those of Turkey, which has supported rebel groups fighting Assad, has not gone away with the latest Moscow agreement. As those differences persist, they could become the backdrop for the next escalation in Idlib.

Iran, Assad’s second international partner, is another factor that could rock the new ceasefire, said Michael Tanchum, a senior fellow at the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy.

“Iran-backed Shia militias and especially Hezbollah fought very hard against Turkish allied forces in key strategic locations,” Tanchum said in a message in response to questions. “Iran will need to be brought into the process or Hezbollah could reignite tensions with attacks on Turkey-backed forces.”

1