Russia agrees with Turkey, Iran on Idlib ‘de-escalation’ zone
Beirut- After seven years of fighting, the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights estimates that about half a million people have lost their lives to Syria’s carnage. According to the UN, there are thought to be around 5 million refugees outside of Syria and approximately 6 million individuals and families displaced within Syria who can now seek shelter in the de-escalation zones agreed to at Astana.
Days before the sixth round of the Astana talks started on September 14, the Russian Ministry of Defence boasted that 85% of Syrian territory had been liberated from control of the armed opposition, adding that Syria would now have to finish off the remaining 15%, (approximately 27,000 sq. kilometres) itself.
On September 12, Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu showed up in Damascus for talks with Syrian President Bashar Assad, while two days later, Russian President Vladimir Putin sat down with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Sochi on the Black Sea. All talks focused on the remaining cities not yet in the hands of the Syrian government: Mayadin in Deir ez-Zor province, Abu Kamal on the Euphrates River and principally Idlib in Syria’s north-west.
Following two days of talks, the three nations issued a joint statement on September 15, announcing the establishment of several de-escalation zones, which will initially stand for six months, though this limit is said to be subject to review. These zones are understood to now include all or part of Eastern Ghouta, the provinces of Idlib, Homs, Latakia, Aleppo and Hama. As part of the deal, Russia, Iran and Turkey will post observers on the edge of the Idlib region.
Idlib stands to be especially problematic. Sitting on Turkey’s border and held by an assortment of jihadist groups led by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra, it has been of understandable interest to Ankara since mid-2015. After losing the initiative in Aleppo to the Russians last December and, more recently, the oil-rich city of Deir ez-Zor, the Turks have been focused on Idlib as the last standing urban centre in Syria where they could establish a sphere of lasting political and military influence.
Ankara had initially demanded incorporating Idlib into the “de-conflict” zones that were agreed upon last May by Moscow, Ankara and Tehran. The Turks have officially asked the Russians to allow them to send troops to Idlib to rid it of all jihadist groups in exchange for letting the Iranians establish a wider military presence in the countryside of Damascus.
Both Iran and Turkey have been competing for a greater presence in the four de-conflict zones, against the will of both Damascus and the armed opposition. At the last round of Astana talks, opposition leader Mohammad Alloush strongly objected to the sending of Iranian troops to Ghouta in the Damascus countryside, instead suggesting a contingent of Arab peacekeepers with forces from Egypt and Algeria. Government negotiators, already furious with the near-complete annexation of three cities along the border — Jarabulus, Azaz and al-Bab — since mid-2016, snapped back, saying that under no circumstances would they tolerate an additional Turkish presence in Syria.
To settle the dispute of how to man the de-conflict zones, Russia sent 600 military police to Aleppo in December, topped with 400 in Ghouta and up to 1,000 in southern Syria, expected to arrive by end of 2017. Left standing is the city of Idlib, which has been the destination of all jihadists evacuated from different towns and cities over the past 12 months.
Russia had originally wanted to create a perfect example of a failed state in Idlib, riddled with inter-rebel fighting and Salafi rule, hoping to shed media attention on the experience and then to show the world what happens to a city when fully in the hands of Syrian rebels.
What might happen now is unclear. However, the allies’ thinking is supposed to favour allowing Turkey to handle Idlib and expanding Iran’s role in the vicinity of Damascus. This is what Russian Defence Minister Shoigu had on his agenda when he visited Syria on September 12. Part of this swap agreement links directly with an earlier deal reached this summer, which mandates the transfer of more than 20,000 Shias from Kefraya and Fouaa in the countryside of Idlib to Madaya and Zabadani outside of Damascus.
Iran’s ploy was to create a Shia belt around the Syrian capital similar to the one enjoyed by Hezbollah in the southern suburb of Beirut. The Iranians are now trying to expand that zone beyond Madaya and Zabadani to include the villages of Yalda, Babila and Beit Sahem — all in the southern outskirts of Damascus west of the Yarmouk Camp.
No decision has been reached on the fate of these villages and whether to fill them with additional Shia, and talks are still under way on whether to give the Turks an additional role in Idlib. Much of that depends on who takes Mayadin and Abu Kamal from ISIS — be it the Americans, the Kurds or the Russia-backed Syrian Army. If denied the honours, Moscow will probably refuse the expansion of Iran’s role and that of Turkey as well. If accommodated with further gains on the Euphrates, however, which at present seem very likely, the Russians will not mind signing off on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ambitions for the Idlib de-escalation zone.