A change of political arena in Idlib

A change of political arena in Idlib

During these days, when domestic policies are occupying the agenda, interesting developments are happening in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib. Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russia, are continuing to push the frontiers of Idlib by downgrading armed groups. It is clear that this is not an exchange.  As a result we see that there will be humanitarian, military and political consequences.

Around 3 million civilians live in Idlib. There are roughly 45,000 to 60,000 armed militants, even though the figures are not precise. Russia has defined these groups as “terrorists” since the first day and stressed that no tolerance will be shown no matter what. This attitude of Russian leader Vladimir Putin can be regarded as determination. As a matter of fact, the approach is in accordance with the “fight against terrorism” culture in Russia. The truth is, this approach is more focused on removing “terrorists” at discretion and does not attach much importance to what is happening to the civilians during the process. Recent signs show that Putin has put this plan into effect.

Turkey, looking for a way out and seeking to reduce or prevent tragic outcomes, took diplomatic action last September and persuaded the Russians, who were not eager to take steps regarding this, to disarm those that Russia defines as “terrorists,” without any conflict. In this framework, Russia, Iran and Turkey signed the “Idlib road map” on Sept. 17, 2018.

According to the deal, all groups will withdraw from contact zones to central Idlib by 15 kilometers and halt attacks against Russian troops, by Oct. 15, 2018. Thus, Idlib will be freed from all-around military mobility. Both Turkey and Russia were to establish “cease-fire observation points” to monitor the situation. Indeed, despite all difficulties, Turkey has provided 12 observation points for the Turkish Armed Forces to settle.

In the second phase, the M-4 (Aleppo-Latakia) and M-5 (Aleppo-Hama) highways, passing through east-west and north-south lines respectively in southern Idlib, were to be securely opened to transportation in the first week of December 2018. Despite the numerous deadline extensions, this objective could not be implemented.

Moreover, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which took action earlier this year, seized 80 percent of the region. In order to prevent the collapse of the deal, Turkey and Russia began to patrol in a synchronized manner. Nevertheless, the cease-fire violations began with the arrival of spring and became more intense.

It can be said that the military target of the regime, which took action with Russian support, is to take control of the M-4 and M-5 highways that are of strategic importance. The acquisition of this objective would mean intense conflict and clash in southern and southeastern Idlib. It is inevitable for this development to trigger a humanitarian crisis.

For Turkey, the problem is not limited to refugees. The primary problem is the security of the soldiers in the observation post of Turkish Armed Forces. The “political objective” Turkey has put forward in Idlib is rapidly becoming vague. Military tasks, organization and activities defined to achieve the initial political objective are becoming an asymmetrical risk for political and military decision-makers rather than supporting the ambiguous objective. The time, place, friends and foes are not clear. Thus, it is time to prioritize the soldiers’ security and rethink about what can or cannot be accomplished.

Nihat Özcan,