What does ‘de-escalation zone in Idlib’ mean?
Turkey and Russia have finally agreed that now it is time to put the de-escalation zone into practice in Idlib. In January this year, the two countries, with the rather reluctant participation of Iran at a later stage, have convened in Astana, Kazakhstan, to bring the Syrian regime forces and the Syrian opposition forces around the same table in order to facilitate the creation of a favorable environment for the continuation of peace talks in Geneva.
The so-called “Astana Process” started at the beginning of 2017 but the idea of de-escalation zones was agreed between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Sochi, Russia, in May. According to this agreement, four de-escalation zones would be formed in Syria. The first three have been made operational in the summer. These are in the Daraa region in the south, secured by Russia, the U.S. and Jordan; in Eastern Ghouta close to Damascus, secured by Russia and the Syrian regime; in Homs, again secured by Russia; and finally in Idlib.
What are the purposes of de-escalation zones? Russia, Turkey and Iran have come to the conclusion that the establishment of mere cease-fire lines do not help suspend conflict between the regime forces and the opposition forces. These cease-fire lines have to become more effective in the sense that they also allow the formation of humanitarian corridors with a view of facilitating access to aid organizations and their convoys to civilians. Failure to do so has resulted with severe humanitarian tragedy in Aleppo last year. One of Turkey’s observation missions in Idlib will be to secure feasibility of such humanitarian assistance.
Why is the de-escalation zone in Idlib being formed so late? First, Idlib is the largest area under the dominant control of the Syrian opposition. Civilian population, including those who have been able to find refuge there after the catastrophic battle lived in Aleppo last year, sum up to 3.7 million people.
Second, the opposition forces which control the region are not homogeneous. They have differences of opinion among themselves. For example, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a group supported by Turkey, has lost its strength in the region. Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) appears to be a coalition of various opposition forces, including former Al-Nusra, with its roots going back to al-Qaeda. HTS claims to be the legitimate opposition to the Bashar al-Assad regime, but does not necessarily represent the entire Syrian people. Idlib is a very complicated and complex zone where a number of different armed groups are at odds with one another. Implementation of de-escalation there, therefore, is the hardest and the most delicate.
Will it be easy to put de-escalation into practice in Idlib? Yesterday’s bombing and the death of many civilians in a residential area showed that Idlib is a powder keg. Coordination between Turkey and Russia and their control over the forces on which they have influence are fundamental prerequisites for success. Shifting alliances between the various opposition groups already present in Idlib will cause the game plan to be spoiled. The regime forces, on the other hand, will certainly try to provoke the opposition and would prove reluctant to hold the cease-fire, no matter how strongly Russia would try to convince Damascus to behave. Therefore, risks of confrontation and conflict are not negligible.
Turkey, according to the agreement reached with Russia, will deploy 500 military observers at 14 different control points for the observation mission it undertakes in Idlib. Any escalation of conflict will oblige Turkey to apply its response, under the rules of engagement, either to defend and support FSA units or its own military personnel.
Turkey will also have to manage the risk of civilian migration toward secure zones away from conflict, which under current circumstances will be perceived by the local civilian population as Turkey’s own territory.
Finally, Turkey should be aware of the political and military objectives, and the limitations, of its mission to take part in the formation of a de-escalation zone under its international responsibilities. Failing to do so and to have a wider and national interpretation of this mission will only pour fuel on fire.