Eyes on Idlib as deadline for jihadists expires
All eyes will be on Idlib this week, as a deal brokered between Turkey and Russia last month, which stipulates the withdrawal of all jihadist terror groups from a demilitarized zone within the Syrian province, needs to be concluded today. The first phase of the deal has been successfully accomplished on Oct. 10 as the opposition groups removed their heavy arms from the zone. That prompted positive remarks from both the Turkish and Russian governments on the implementation of the deal, although the Syrian government has insisted on the temporariness of the agreement.
As for the withdrawal process, most of them, including the National Liberation Front, have accepted the deal. Russian officials informed last week that around 1,000 fighters have been observed as leaving the demilitarized zone. But, according to reports, there are still thousands of jihadists in the zone who are in efforts to reinforce their positions against a potential attack by the Syrian army after the deadline. Al-Nusra-linked groups, which are manned by foreign fighters, are still in the zone although some groups have removed heavy weaponry in the last week.
After the deadline, Turkish and Russian troops are set to hold joint military patrolling in the zone to monitor the situation. The exact timing, the scope and the mandate of the military patrolling are yet to be announced.
Although the deal has averted a major military operation by the Syrian army, it would be hard to expect that this status quo will last forever. As stated by the Syrian regime, the ultimate objective of Damascus is to wipe all terror organizations out and to stabilize the conditions inside the country.
Needless to point out, the Assad regime also plans to target opposition groups in order to further consolidate its control on its soils and therefore take advantage ahead of future talks for a political settlement.
The key question at this stage is whether Turkey and Russia, the architects of the Idlib deal, will use force against the jihadist groups that refuse to leave the zone. Senior Turkish officials had already implied that a joint military action can be taken against radical groups but only after separating them from civilians.
Turkey has recently reinforced its troops stationed in monitoring posts in 12 different spots around Idlib. Furthermore, reports suggest that it has also supplied weapons to the National Liberation Front in case of an armed conflict with the jihadist groups.
It will be up to the jihadist groups to decide whether they want to engage in a military confrontation with the Turkish army or the National Liberation Front.
Any scenario on what might happen in the coming weeks and months does not rule a major armed confrontation in Idlib. Given the fact the province stands as the last bastion that jihadist rebel groups still control in Syria, expectations that a long-term, heavy and bloody armed confrontation may prove to be right.
Although the deal has created optimism for a peaceful resolution of the Idlib question, risks of a potential violence are high with concerns that this can jeopardize Turkey’s security as well. In a bid to reduce these risks, an optional way for Turkey could be establishing indirect coordination with the Syrian regime through Russia’s mediation. The presence of these jihadists is a mutual concern for all actors in the Syrian theater and therefore requires a much more concerted action.