Idlib deal complicates Turkey’s role in Syria
The deal between Turkey and Russia on Idlib has multiple consequences. It perfectly avoided – for now – an imminent military offensive by the Syrian army into the northwestern province of Syria, home to nearly three million people as well as armed moderate opposition groups and jihadist terrorist organizations.
Heavily backed by Russia and Iran both politically and militarily, the Syrian regime has long been willing to wipe out the opposition groups and the terrorists from the last rebel bastion in western Syria before efforts for a political settlement could be intensified under the U.N. mandate.
The second important result of the Idlib deal is the creation of a demilitarized zone 15 to 20 kilometers deep between the opposition groups as well as jihadist groups and the Syrian regime’s army. Thirdly, it stipulates that all radical groups will be removed from the zone by Oct. 15 and that the opposition will lay down all their heavy weapons by Oct. 10.
One other result of this agreement is that it brought for the first time a deadline to the questions stemming from the presence of jihadist groups in the enclave while employing Turkey with the task of convincing all these groups to leave the demilitarized zone within a few weeks.
The groups include the heavily armed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham alliance and other foreign fighters coming from former Soviet republics and China. It’s believed that they control around 70 percent of the zone and that they have already started reinforcing their positions in the face of a military offensive.
In the meantime, Turkey has continued military deployment in the province where it already has 12 observation posts to monitor the ceasefire between the opposition and the regime forces under the Astana agreement.
Many analysts are concerned that implementing this deal will be a very difficult one and a failure in this process could even further complicate the situation in the Idlib province. Turkish and Russian officials are in intense technical works to separate civilians from terrorists and to ensure the implementation of this agreement through a joint committee, however, the real burden is obviously on Turkey’s shoulders.
Thanks to the deal, Turkey won time to stop a military offensive and therefore avoid a new humanitarian disaster and a fresh refugee influx toward its border. However, a potential collapse of the deal because of the unwillingness of radical groups for removal from the zone would mean a green light for the Russia-Syria-Iran trio to resume their military offensive against all armed groups in the region.
The agreement on Idlib has surely created a better environment for world leaders who have gathered in New York on the occasion of the U.N. General Assembly, especially for Russian President Vladimir Putin who could escape from growing international pressure. By mid-October, however, things can turn rather chaotic and would put Turkey under additional regional burden and serious security challenges.