The Iran Project

Idlib deal: Dimensions, outlooks

Alwaght – Russian and Turkish Presidents, following their 17 September meeting in Sochi, announced reaching an agreement on creating a buffer zone between terrorist groups and the Syrian government’s forces in Idlib province, adding that the peace in the de-confliction zone will be kept by patrolling units from Russia and Turkey.

The accord, signed ten days after a meeting in Iran’s capital among presidents of Iran, Russia, and Turkey, is of several aspects in terms of military and security and once it succeeds or fails, it will bear opportunities and, likewise, threats to the actors playing role in Idlib case.

The Sochi truce agreement was reached at a time when the countdown had started for Syrian army’s operation to retake the city from foreign-backed terrorists. But the Western players mounted threats of new strikes on the Syrian government under the excuse of possible Damascus chemical attacks on the terrorist-held regions, while the Russian ministry of defense warned that the armed groups were preparing to stage a false flag gas attack to draw blame on President Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, Turkey, as a party to the Astana peace process between the government and the opposition, had warned that military operation in Idlib could led to humanitarian crisis.

In the middle of the conflict-ready situation, the Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan agreed to determine an area of separation of forces, between 15 and 29 kilometers wide, separating the Syrian army from militants. When the two leaders announced the agreement, it received a welcome from Iran and the Syrian government. The Western parties also well embraced the announcement. General Robert Ashley, the director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, speaking at a national security event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, called the pact “encouraging” and said Washington will back it.

According to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, the decision by Russia and Turkey on Idlib was an “intermediate step”, because it only created a demilitarized zone with the long-term aim being the removal of Al-Nusra Front terrorists. He said that the pact would pave the way for the withdrawal of heavy arms followed by the pullout of the Al-Nusra Front militants from the region by mid-October.

According to the Sochi deal, the demilitarized zone will cover regions in the eastern Latakia outskirts such as Jisr al-Sheghour, Sahl al-Ghab, Jabal Shahshabu, Kafr Nabudah, al-Habit, Khan Sheikhun, Maarrat al-Nu’man, Saraqib, as well as the western and southern suburbs of Aleppo province. The zone covers an area where the armed militants and the terrorist hold territories.

The deal specifies that Turkey help should remove the heavy arms from the demilitarized area by October 10 as it holds sway over the militants. Next comes its arrangement for withdrawal of the militiamen by October 15. Ankara is also asked to establish a contact line with the Russians that will allow them to separate the so-called moderate fighters from the terrorists. An item of the pact says that the two countries will deploy joint patrolling forces to watch the truce across the covered zone. Once the agreement is fully enforced, it will facilitate the presence of the Russian military police across Idlib, and this means al-Nusra, recognizing itself as the Syrian branch of Al-Qaeda terrorist group, will lose grip over what holds in the province.

Another item in the Putin-Erdogan deal allows a return of the rule of the central government over the key spots in the province and vital roads, including the M4 highway, linking Aleppo to Latakia, and M5 highway, linking Aleppo to Hama. If these two routes are re-opened, the demilitarization zone will stretch to them. And this, in turn, will allow the Syrian authorities to expand areas of security for the citizens. Realization of this will broaden Damascus’ rule over the province and lead to control of Aleppo-Hama transit road, one of the country’s key economic lifelines.

When the two presidents announced the pact, the armed groups, each belonging to a different camp— Salafists with takfiri and Muslim Brotherhood roots— reacted with mixed messages of acceptance and rejection. Those close to Turkey, on top of them Ahrar al-Sham, tacitly showed a green light. But the takfiri camp, including Horas Al-Din, Ansar al-Tawhid, Ansar al-Din, Ansarullah, Al-Furqan Brigades, Jamaat Jund Al-Qawqaz, and a couple of other factions came against the entire deal, or at least rejected parts of it like the retreat from the contact lines with the government forces in Jisr al-Sheghour to eastern, northern, and southwestern suburbs of Idlib. But they are mainly opposed to handover of the M4 and M5 transit ways to the army. The field sources suggest that since the Sochi agreement was announced, they set up a massive military obstacle at the beginning of the route linking Aleppo to Saraqib. Further reports suggest that their checkpoints in the two vital routes have been increased to four.

Despite the fact that less than a week remains for Turkey to implement the agreement by pressing the armed groups to vacate the demilitarization zone, the sources familiar with the process on the ground maintain that the mission is far from implementation.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (previously Al-Nusra Front) has so far declined to take a clear stance on the agreement but other al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have strongly opposed and are presently taking measures to set up roadblocks ahead of its implementation.

The media reported that the Turkey-aligned groups, Faylaq al-Sham specifically, have removed their heavy weapons from the agreed-upon area, but official outlets of the groups deny any retreat. Omar Hadhifa, a high-ranking member of the militant group, in a statement on Facebook, rejected the truce and said his group will not implement it. Media sources note that the group asked for similar moves by the government as well as release of its members from prison.

Russia’s show of restraint puts Turkey to a difficult test, marking the last chance to prevent the Syrian army from taking back Idlib by force. Therefore, if by October 15 Turkey fails to disarm the opposition, send the foreign terrorists out of Syria, and ensure Moscow that its Hamaymim military base in Latakia will not come under attacks anymore, then the military option will resurface. In this case, Turkey’s hands will be empty to impede the anti-terror offensive.

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