Could the Russia-Turkey deal avert disaster in Idlib?

Could the Russia-Turkey deal avert disaster in Idlib?
Analysis: The deal has bought more time for international diplomacy, but Syrians remain wary - and who could blame them?
6 min read
18 September, 2018
Erdogan and Putin enjoy warm diplomatic and military relations in several key geopolitical areas [Anadolu]
Faced with a near-certain onslaught on Idlib, Syria's last opposition-held bastion, a compromise between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin was announced on Monday night. 

"We will prevent a humanitarian tragedy which could happen as a result of military action," Erdogan said after the talks in the Black Sea city of Sochi.

Putin said the two leaders agreed to create a 15-20 kilometre-wide demilitarised zone along the line of contact between rebels and regime troops by October 15, as reported by wire news agencies.

Russia has previously shown little interest in compromise - continually bombarding the province and targeting civilian infrastructure - hospitals, schools, power stations - in particular. However, after Turkey sent in reinforcements, Russia seems to have been persuaded an all-out assault on an erstwhile ally may be more trouble than it is worth.

It would have meant clashing with a NATO power and attempting to forcibly take the area, home to three million people - around half of them already displaced from elsewhere in Syria.

Of course, this deal would not have come about without Turkish involvement.

"There is Turkish insistence on two things: to prevent the battle of Idlib and to maintain Turkish-Russian relations.  This is in the interest of the Syrian people and national security second," said Colonel Fateh Hassoun, leader of the Free Syrian Army.  

The compromise has focused on developing plans for limited attacks on areas of the province controlled by the local Al-Qaeda franchise, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front, as well as in some areas of Latakia and Hama, while Turkey mobilises forces to oust HTS.

Forcing these militants from the area would rid Russia of the pretext for intervention. However, an absence of jihadis has not stopped Russia from previous attacks - they also destroyed and depopulated areas where militants had never had such a presence - including Daraya outside Damascus. 

While Russia's original stated reason to intervene in Syria was to target IS and Nusra, it quickly became clear that Russia was instead targeting civilians and moderate rebel groups opposed to Bashar al-Assad's continued despotic rule. 

Turkey has used the threat of a new influx of refugees to encourage European pressure against Russia - but this is also part of Russia's motivations; that a continual influx of refugees from Syria encourages right-wing nationalist groups across the continent and destablises Europe.  

The agreement was pre-empted by some, with Syrian daily al-Watan saying that Ankara was "ready to fight those who do not want to surrender, in cooperation with the Russian air force, which will provide air cover in the event of any Russian-Turkish agreement.

"This will aim to retain the limited influence of moderate opposition fighters, and to open the road link between Hama and Aleppo, and between Aleppo and Latakia."

This is apparently Russia's strategic aim, if Putin's remarks following the meeting are taken at face value.

However, we have seen such agreements before. "De-escalation zones" created in 2017 were seemingly used to paralyse the most active rebel groups, and subsequently oust them from the area. 

A separate deal in Deraa, in southern Syria, was made which involved Israel, Jordan and Russia. This initially seemed more successful with thousands of refugees returning from Jordan, and the ceasefire holding until July this year - when regime and Russian forces advanced and drove out the last of the rebels from the area, as thousands of refugees again fled to Jordan.

Russia has also shown its ability to tactically hold back before. In the first major offensive against rebel-held Aleppo at the end of 2015, Russian-backed regime forces only took part of the area, despite having the airpower the rebels lacked. However, a year later, regime and Russian forces took the whole city in the last battle of Aleppo, following victories against rebels in surrounding areas.    

Iran, the other main backer of the Assad regime, has had a somewhat more subdued rhetoric over the expected assault of Idlib than one might expect - saying a humanitarian disaster should be prevented, and not vocally pledging troops to the battle. 

This is likely due to an overwhelming interest in self-preservation; Israel and the US are serious about preventing Iran from entrenching herself in Syria, and Israel has extended its frequent targeting of Iranian positions to northern Syria, suggesting concern about Iranian positions extends beyond their immediate border area.  

Although it would seem that Israel in particular is fairly tolerant of Assad regime forces, it is unlikely that the regime forces alone would be able to take and hold an area such as Idlib from rebel groups without significant aid from Iranian paramilitaries on the ground and Russian support in the skies. 

Iran's underwhelming enthusiasm may be a sign they are unwilling to sacrifice more manpower and money to take an area only for their positions to be subsequently targeted by the US and Israel. Additionally, Idlib is not as strategically important to Iran as Syria's main cities - and those areas which provide routes from Iran to Lebanon and Iraq, where Tehran also has significant interests. 

On the other hand, Idlib is clearly a target for regime forces and her backers. There is an idea that if Idlib is captured, the whole of Syria will return to regime control - despite much of the east of the country being held by US-backed Kurdish forces, which Turkey will no doubt wish to see undermined and stripped of power in those territories.

Many Syrians remain wary in the wake of this deal being announced - and who could blame them, considering Russia's years-long participation in what many have described as genocide in Syria?

Captain Naji Abu Hudayfeh, a spokesman for the National Liberation Front, the largest coalition of Syrian opposition factions in northwestern Syria, said although they were following developments in the international negotiations, they are predominantly relying on their own fighters to counter any attack.

"The armed Syrian opposition relies only on our readiness to fight at a time when the forces of the Syrian regime still vow military action," he said, adding they were prepared to "thwart all Russian plans."

Syrian regime media has been repeatedly reporting preparations for the last major battle in Syria. While Russian bombardment has eased off in recent weeks, regime shelling continued to target northern Hama and rural areas of Aleppo. 

Local sources told The New Arab there had been a military buildup of Iranian regime and militia forces in the northern and eastern parts of Aleppo, perhaps heralding another assault on opposition-friendly areas there.

Considering Russia's track record, it seems unlikely that the ceasefire will hold to become a permanent arrangement.  However, Turkey's intervention does at least demonstrate the effect of international pressure on Russia's ambitions in Syria. 

If powers such as the US were to follow suit, Idlib may yet be saved.

Reporting from Amin Assi, additional writing and analysis Imogen Lambert