Russia and Turkey’s Idlib deal holds, for now

Whether by accident or Damascus’s design, the presence of the ISIS fighters in Idlib threatens to undermine Turkish plans.
Friday 05/10/2018
Freshly dyed Syrian opposition flags are seen hanging out to dry outside shops in the rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan, in the north of Idlib province on September 27, 2018. (AFP)
Splintering loyalties. Freshly dyed Syrian opposition flags are seen hanging out to dry outside shops in the rebel-held town of Maaret al-Numan, in the north of Idlib province on September 27, 2018. (AFP)

TUNIS - The Assad regime appears to be doing all it can to frustrate Turkey’s plans for maintaining the fragile peace on its northern frontier as an October 15 deadline for Ankara to oversee the clearing of the province’s demilitarised zone of jihadists and heavy weapons approaches.

The agreement was reached out between Russian and Turkey on the brink of an expected Russia-backed regime assault on Syria’s final rebel stronghold of Idlib and its population of 2.9 million civilians. The deal calls for a 15-20km buffer zone to be established around the city, free from the presence of proscribed jihadist groups.

The deal appears to be working. As Turkey consolidates its military presence in the province, Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed on October 3 that there were no preparations for military operations in Idlib. "I have every reason to believe that we will achieve our goals," Reuters reported Putin as saying, "and that means, no large-scale military actions are expected there. Military action for the sake of military action is unnecessary."

However, jihadist group Tanzim Huras al-Din slammed the agreement as a "great conspiracy" and the Ansar al-Din Front issued a statement in September calling on insurgent groups in Idlib “during this critical period to overcome their differences because of the existential battle since our enemy does not differentiate between us.”

Perhaps the greatest challenge to the Turkey-Russian deal lies beyond Idlib's jihadists and in the presidential palace of Damascus. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s determination to recapture “every inch” of Syria was voiced in 2016. Now, on the brink of ridding Syria of its final rebel enclave, the opportunity has seemingly been traded away by foreign powers negotiating the future of Syrian territory, leaving Damascus with a political no man’s land on its soil, occupied by rebels and governed by an ambiguous mixture of Turkish, jihadist and rebel influences.

Damascus decided in late September to bus 400 Islamic State (ISIS) fighters to Idlib from Abu Kamal in eastern Syria, which had been surrounded by regime troops. Such deals have become commonplace, with the remaining defenders of any rebel position offered the choice between reconciling with the regime, removal to Idlib or fighting to the death.

In this instance, the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights reported, the deal may have been sweetened by the return of 30 hostages taken by the jihadists during a raid on the Druze stronghold of Sweida in July.

Whether by accident or Damascus’s design, the presence of the ISIS fighters in Idlib threatens to undermine Turkish plans.

“ISIS is definitely a spoiler in Idlib and the Assad government knows that,” said Nicholas Heras, a Middle East security fellow at the Centre for a New American Secu­rity in Washington. “Turkey is already having trouble convincing its rebel proxies in Idlib to give up their heavy weapons in the proposed demilitarised zone, which is a big problem. These are the Syrian rebels who Turkey needs to take on and take out al-Qaeda, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the Turkistan Islamic Party and similar groups and Turkey's Syrian rebel proxies do not seem up to that job.

"Adding more ISIS into Idlib is a recipe for bloodshed because ISIS will try to subvert the Turkish-Russian deal and attack other Syrian rebel groups and call them apostates if they accept the deal.” Heras added.

“The Assad government knows this and is hoping that Idlib collapses into open warfare among the armed opposition groups, which will make Turkey's job harder and bloodier. That situation would allow Damascus the opportunity to claim that Turkey is not up to the job that Russia gave it, which could be used by the Assad government as an excuse to enter Idlib.”