Idlib is set up for a fall — anytime
It is not a question of whether the Idlib province ceasefire will take hold but how long it can last.
The agreement between Turkey and Russia affects proxies and allies of each. Russia’s client, the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, has indicated that it views the ceasefire as a “temporary measure.”
This is inauspicious but the regime’s violent ambition has become the Syrian conflict’s constant feature. It has neither the manpower nor the political leverage to begin a campaign against the well-armed and entrenched remnants of the country’s revolution. An assault is at some point inevitable but its success and its timing remain dependent on the Assad regime’s external allies.
Turkey’s allies, found directly in the form of Syria’s organised secular rebels and indirectly in various Islamist groups and alliances, must acquiesce to the demands of their protector. Turkish forces moved into Idlib when a Syrian government onslaught appeared likely. Syria’s northern neighbour can both assert its influence directly and steer peaceable action through the calculated risk of deploying its people. This leaves little scope for movement left to Idlib’s insurgents.
Those defending the province must await the inevitable violence without knowing when it will begin. Their position is unenviable, though it may prove tenable for a time. Rebels can perhaps take comfort in the likelihood that, the ceasefire having held so far, it will likely last in the medium term.
However, the deal still favours the eventual attackers.
The ceasefire enforces conditions on rebel forces designed to put them at a disadvantage. It demands the evacuation of heavy weaponry from a buffer zone many kilometres into Idlib. As a way of playing for time, complying has its advantages but withdrawals of this kind hardly guarantee rebels the ability to mount a sustainable defence of their remaining positions.
In the lead up to the mid-October deadline for compliance, rebels reluctantly withdrew heavy weapons from the specified areas. This was not the whole story, however.
Idlib contains secular and organised rebel forces under Turkish protection and moderate Islamist groups with similar though less direct affiliations. Each can be trusted, in the immediate future, to keep the peace.
But the continued presence of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a further link to al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria, presents a course difficult to parse or predict.
HTS is keeping its part of the regional bargain, withdrawing its heavy weapons from the Idlib buffer but this accordance with what others have agreed cannot be taken to mean much. Not only does HTS have its own inscrutable internal politics and unstraightforward relationship with violence, it serves as a continual prop in a broader propaganda war.
If HTS demonstrates any desire to flout the agreement or displays any intransigence, it would represent a stumbling block to general compliance. The presence of HTS, along with al-Qaeda’s leading Syrian affiliate, Tanzim Huras al-Din, in Idlib is a boon to Assad government and Russian propaganda.
The jihadist presence in Idlib, especially as its forces become entrenched, supports that mainstay of Damascus propaganda: that those opposing Assad’s expansionism are jihadists or jihadist sympathisers; that they seek violence and oppose peace.
The language in which the agreement was concluded is clear: ceasefires do not apply to terrorists. Assad and his forces have never been punctilious in their use of the term; it can mean any group that opposes them if they so choose. However, in HTS and their like, they have a ready-made enemy, one that meets even their more hyperbolic descriptions and that seems ready to trample over any agreement between warring parties with ease and likely pleasure.
The jihadist presence in Idlib is unavoidable. The fighters are hemmed in but, while they appear to be complying with the tenets of the ceasefire, their presence is anathema to the ceasefire. Idlib is set up for a fall, the situation rigged to allow Assad’s forces to begin the offensive at any time of its choosing.