Deciphering the March 5 agreement in 10 articles
One more time, there was no break with tradition. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin took the tension under control with the agreement they reached and lowered the pressure of the crisis which was dangerously escalating.
The silence of the weapons and introduction of the peace option is positive and will make everybody take a deep breath. We can analyze the outcomes at the end of the talks in Moscow under these headings:
The end of the status quo in Idlib:
The status quo that was shaped in Idlib with the Sochi agreement signed between Turkey and Russia on Sept. 17, 2018 was largely damaged due to the Bashar al-Assad regime’s gains in the field since last May thanks to the massive bombing support of the Russian air forces.
Within this period that extended to the second week of February, the regime took under control the whole M-5 highway that runs from north to south in Idlib’s east and at the same time started to advance to the north towards the M-4 highway that runs from east to west in Idlib’s South.
As a result of this drive, an area nearly half of the size of Idlib went from the opposition to the regime. This situation has been in a way formalized with yesterday’s memorandum. It does not look easy to go back to the initial geographical borders of the Sochi agreement especially in terms of the M-5 axis and its east.
The new status quo:
With the new agreement a new status quo has emerged in Idlib. In fact the new status quo also formalized the new position that Turkey has de facto imposed through the temporary military outposts it set up especially in the west of M-5 and north of M-4 thanks to its formidable military build-up that started since the beginning of February.
At the end, after the intense clashes, while Idlib’s south and its eastern zone remain under the regime area, Turkey, together with the opposition, keeps under control a big chunk that is above the M-4 highway and west of the M-5. We can read this development in a way as Turkey gradually setting up a “safe zone” adjacent to its border in Idlib’s north.
On which axis ceasefire will be implemented:
In order to understand what will happen on the field, let’s focus on the expression “the line of contact in the Idlib de-escalation area,” used in the memorandum’s first article.
Our understanding of the “line of contact” should be all the points of contact where the regime’s army confronts Turkish Armed Forces and the armed opposition, primarily the border line starting from the furthest point in the northwest of the M-5
highway descending 50 km to Saraqib, and especially Saraqib. Clashes took place at the same time westward around the M-4 highway and south of the M-4.
Shifts in military outposts:
The most important mechanism that comes to life with the memorandum is the “safe corridor” that will be established over the M-4 that starts from Saraqib, stretching 55 km westward to Latakia.
This corridor will stretch 6 km deep on both sides of the highway. While it has not been expressed in a clear manner, we can guess that probably heavy weapons within the 12 km zone will be withdrawn behind the frontal lines.
The Turkish Armed Forces set up temporary military outposts both on the M-4 north and south in February. It will not be surprising to see some shifts or displacements of some of these after the talks that are underway.
The regime will not go beyond M-4:
The safety of this road will be assumed by Turkish and Russian soldiers through joint patrols. In a way, the joint patrol mechanism Turkey and Russia had started with “Operation Peace Spring” along the border of the east of River Euphrates will also operate here.
Within this framework we can guess that it will be possible for the Assad regime to use this road for civilian purpose. That way, Aleppo, under the regime, would be connected to Latakia on the Mediterranean coast.
In exchange, the regime’s access to M-4 highway advancing from the south will be contained with this mechanism being established. Equally important is the fact that Turkey will have the monitoring ability with Russia over the M-4.
Idlib’s center remains in the opposition area:
The emerging format shows that Idlib’s city center above the M-4 highway will remain within opposition area in the period ahead. The city center is 6-7 km north of the M-4 highway. As such, the Assad regime will have on hold its intention to take the city center.
HTS problem on the implementation:
Terrorist organizations in Idlib were the main focus in Putin’s statements. The “determination to combat all forms of terrorism, and to eliminate all terrorist groups in Syria as designated by the [United Nations Security Council] UNSC,” is underlined in the fourth paragraph of the additional protocol.
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) identified by the U.N. as “terrorist” has significant field control in the opposition area north of the M-4. Idlib city is one of the HTS’ most important power centers. Based on this memorandum, Russia keeps the right to act against the HTS, which remains in the region controlled by the Turkish Armed Forces. Therefore, the Achilles' heel in the implementation of the new agreement will be the HTS.
How will Turkey restrain the HTS?
An important point is the fact that Turkey has one more time registered with this agreement its commitment to fight with the HTS. In his statement, Erdoğan said that in addition to stopping the regime’s aggression, the additional troops sent to Idlib aimed at restraining “other groups which do not abide by the ceasefire.” At any rate, restraining the HTS rises as one of the most critical issues creating vulnerability in Idlib in the period ahead.
Russia’s commitment not to hit civilians
Similarly, Russia has come under a notable commitment. This commitment appears under the sentence “the targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure cannot be justified under any pretext,” in the protocol.
Let’s recall that the great majority of the aerial bombardment conducted mercilessly without any discrimination towards civilians since May was undertaken by Russian war planes. As such, Russia commits itself not to repeat this conduct.
Insistence on dialogue with Assad:
A point we need to underline is Putin’s statement that the agreed memorandum “will help establish dialogue between all sides to the contention.” It appears that Kremlin will continue its insistence to establish dialogue between Turkey and the Assad regime in the period ahead.