This week the presidents of Russia and Turkey Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdoğan met in Sochi to discuss the situation in Idlib and to find a solution how exactly to de-escalate the tension, that has been accumulating there for the last months. The Northwest province (along with parts of the provinces of Latakia, Aleppo and Hama) is the last rebel stronghold and one of the last territories in Syria, that is still under the control of various rebel and Islamist factions. Within the last few weeks the government has been strengthening its forces and their Russian allies have conducted numerous air assaults in preparation for a possible wide-scale military offensive.
A lot of diplomatic efforts were made in this context in order to be evaded the imminent danger of humanitarian disaster and of course a kind of peaceful solution to be found. Several meetings and talks between Putin and Erdoğan, including the summit in Teheran, which despite the efforts for finding a common ground, it rather showed the differences separating the partners in the so called Astana Process (Russia, Turkey and Iran). Diplomats, military and intelligence officials also worked together, including representatives from France and Germany.
In the end a final (at least for now) agreement was settled after the third personal encounter between Putin and Erdoğan for the last three weeks. Although there are many details that are still to be clarified by October 15 when the agreement will come into force, now it basically looks like this: Russia and Turkey will create a 15-20 km. demilitarized zone along the border between the rebels and the government forces. All militants from radical organizations like Hayat Tahrir al Sham as well as all the heavy weaponry present there, will be withdrawn. Coordinated Russian and Turkish military patrols will be responsible for the integrity of this buffer area. Also, by the end of the year is expected all main roads connecting Aleppo, Hama and Latakia to be opened, including the key M5 highway, which crosses through Syria from Aleppo to the Jordanian border.
So far so good. It seems like both Russia and Turkey have achieved their short term goals. First of all, Turkey received guarantees, that at least for the moment its territory wouldn’t be flooded by a new refugee wave after a possible offensive. In addition to that Ankara still keeps its position of dominance in Idlib both through its military presence, having positioned 12 observation points, and through the 12 rebel militias, which more or less have pro-Turkish attitudes.
On top of that, president Erdoğan succeeded to obtain some more time, in which Turkey should separate the radicals from the moderate opposition.
Russia however, at least temporarily, managed to postpone one bloody and expensive campaign, that despite the certain success, would be achieved at high cost. It should be noted, that approximately 3 million people live in Idlib within about 6000 square km. and UN described the situation as potentially “the worst humanitarian crisis of the 21st century”. To say at least, Moscow also obviously have noted the pressure and the numerous warnings from the USA and the EU regarding the responsibility for a refugee crisis and a possible use of chemical weapons.
THE GORDIAN KNOT OF IDLIB
So far, the plan of Russia and the Assad government has been clear. Facing da thread coming from the possibility of the pro-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces to take over from DAESH the key oil and gas fields in Eastern Syria, Russia came up with the plan for creating the so called de-escalation zones in the Southern and the Western part of the country. Thus the Russians successfully “froze” the conflict with the rebels in order to redirect the necessary resources to stop the advance of SDF. After DAESH lost most of its territorial control in the East, and the relations with SDF were settled along the natural border of the Euphrates river, the Russians and the government could once again turn their attention to the de-escalation zones. The idea for these zones, or at least that was the general perception, was to be found a political and peaceful solution.
Unfortunately, no one even tried to make an effort for such thing. One by one all the zones around Damascus as well as in the provinces of Homs, Dara’a and Quneitra were attacked and captured by the government forces and their allies. As a result, thousands of militants from rebel and Islamist factions were evacuated to the Northwest after a series of agreements with the Assad regime. Now Idlib has been turned into a gathering point for almost all remaining opposition factions and also a huge number of internally displaced civilians.
Now it is very hard to determine the exact number of armed combatants, that operate in this region. In any case, they range between 50 000 and 100 000, most of which experienced. According to the UN special envoy for Syria Staffan De Mistura there are at least 10 000 members of Al Queda linked factions (namely Al Nusra Front within the Hayat Tahrir al Sham alliance). This looks like a relatively small number compared to the total number of fighters, but within the last two years they have been able to prevail over their opponents and take over all the key positions in Idlib province, including the provincial capital. Russia, Iran and the government use these jihadists as a pretext to attack, citing United Nations Security Council resolutions, which designate HTS as terror organization. Without any further way for retreat, expectations are that they will put up strong resistance.
Russia and the Assad regime also should not underestimate the importance of the HTS competing alliance, called National Liberation Front. It was created earlier this year under the patronage and the tacit support of Turkey. It includes Islamist factions like Ahrar al Sham and Nur al Din al Zenki as well as the pro-Turkish militias, part of the Free Syrian Army.
Moscow and Damascus hope, that Turkey will be able to exert its influence over the leadership of HTS so its members can dissolve and melt within the ranks of the pro-Turkish factions in NLF.
For a long time, Ankara has been keeping pragmatic relations with HTS and now it looks that these relations may prove useful. In February this year a hard-line faction broke away from HTS and set up a new one – Huras ad Din. This action shows clearly, that there is a rift within HTS as to whether to betray the ideas of Al Queda and to move into the Turkish sphere of influence. To put some more pressure and send a clear message what may happen, Ankara just recently put HTS in the list of terror organizations.
If Turkey successfully imposes control over the opposition and the Islamists in Idlib, it will be great a success, which would allow it to maintain its influence in this area like it does in Northern Syria – by puppet armed Syrian militias and limited military presence.
When a solution for this problem is to be found, then coping with second-tier factions would be much easier. One of them is Jaysh al Izza, which is considered as member of the Free Syrian Army, but refused to be part of NLF. Another one is the Turkestan Islamic Party, that originates from the Uighur province in China.
The second possible option for cutting the “Gordian knot” in Idlib is the military response. It presents two other options, if Turkey fails to find a peaceful solution. The first one would allow a Russian-led limited action to take out only radicals like Huras ad Din and HTS. The problem is that the Russians and the Assad regime don’t have a good history at making distinction between “moderates”, “radicals” and even civilians.
In this case the second option, which is wide scale military offensive, looks much more probable. This is something that is definitely not in Turkey’s interest, because it would mean diminishing of its influence and giving up the region to Assad and his allies. It would have enormous political and military cost as well as humanitarian. Also, such action is very likely to ruin the relations, that Moscow and Ankara have been building for the past two years.
Besides that, the inevitable civilian loses will certainly create long term problems after the regime establishes full control over the province. Jihadists and Islamists have proven that they can very well use despair and misery as recruitment tools. Killing thousands of terrorists now can’t justify the costs of civilians killed and will build a solid base for the birth of a new generation of terrorists, born in the chaotic aftermath of a possible offensive.