The Idlib deal prevented a massive humanitarian tragedy in the making. But will it hold, and what's next for Syria?
Idlib is now the rebel forces’ last major enclave following the fall of Daraa to the Syrian regime in southern Syria. Any offensive on Idlib would be disastrous, with a bloody price to be paid in human lives and humanitarian tragedies.
The city contains an estimated 2.5-3.3 million people, of whom at least 1.2 million are internally displaced people (IDPs). These families, men and women are all crammed into an area limited to only 3-4 percent of Syria.
The Syrian regime and its allies aim to recapture Idlib so it can declare the end of the opposition’s lingering military presence in Syria as a key premise to begin political talks and to promote the return of refugees, and hold elections.
On the other hand, Turkey is deeply concerned about a Russian offensive on Idlib, for fear of a potential influx of refugees into Turkey, given the fact that it already hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees.
UN Refugee Agency head, Filippo Grandi, warned that an attack on Idlib could lead to a grievous new wave of displacement and aggravate a severe humanitarian crisis.
Describing Idlib as a “nest of terrorists” and a “festering abscess”, Russia’s Sergei Lavrov has repeatedly expressed his determination to use indiscriminate force in quashing the rebels.
On the other hand, Turkey is not only concerned about the potential influx of refugees, but also about its presence in northern Syria, which it considers a matter of national security.
Earlier, Turkey launched operations Olive Branch and Euphrates Shield to secure its border against any potential YPG/PKK penetration into Turkey.
An attack on Idlib is critical for both Turkey and Russia alike. Turkey has substantial economic ties with Russia and is not willing to compromise on these links. Russia, on the other hand, recognises its economic interests and agreements with Turkey and is similarly not willing to jeopardise them.
Turkey is also deeply critical of any broader long-term Russian political designs in Central Asia, the Middle East, and the Black Sea. Concurrently, the Syrian regime and its allies are attempting to build a false image of having control over large areas of the country, thereby reinforcing the idea that there is no threat to the regime’s legitimacy under a central government.
In fact, all areas that appear on maps under the Syrian regime could not have been possibly controlled without intervention from Russian and Iranian ground troops.
Even Damascus, the capital, is not entirely under regime control.
As for Idlib, it remains under the control of rebel and opposition forces with Turkish, Russian and Iranian observation zones along the borders of regime-held areas.
What does the future hold?
Furthermore, from a military viewpoint, the Idlib offensive is challenging for the regime and its allies, especially as this region brings together about 70,000 anti-Assad armed fighters, some of whom were expelled from other parts of Syria.
Turkey is still applying pressure on HTS to dissolve itself into the broader unified opposition factions in Idlib while trying to maintain control over the region.
As part of its efforts, it is holding intensive talks with all opposition groups in Idlib, while attempting to unite them under one umbrella which has so far been an uphill battle.
With the YPG, the Syrian branch of the PKK terror organisation, promising to support a regime offensive on Idlib, Turkey is more determined than ever to prevent an all-out offensive, even threatening to withdraw from the Astana process.
But the ultimate fate of Idlib is still uncertain.
Before the Turkish-Russian deal, observers discussed several potential scenarios: the Syrian regime (and its allies) would either defeat the rebels and opposition, or anti-Assad forces would stand their ground and block any advance from their opponents. Alternatively, an agreement would have to be reached to avoid a bloody battle in Idlib.
The inception of the Idlib agreement took place in a trilateral summit held in Tehran, where Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks about the potential upcoming battle of Idlib.
President Erdogan pushed for a diplomatic agreement to avoid further bloodshed, while Putin and Rouhani announced their full support for the Assad regime to retake Idlib and quash the opposition, which they claimed to be members of terrorist organisations.
With President Putin's call for the “total annihilation of terrorists in Syria,” President Rouhani stressed on “cleansing the Idlib region of terrorists” in what was an explicit endorsement of the military campaign to retake Idlib.
According to Rami Abdul Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, even as the three leaders convened in Tehran, a series of airstrikes hit villages in southeastern Idlib.
However, it still seems unlikely that a major offensive could resume in Idlib because of Turkey’s adamant stance against it and the fact that it will try its best to avoid a bloody military confrontation on its border.
Nevertheless, Turkey has been pushing to reach an agreement with Russia on neutralising Hayat Tahrir Al Sham (HTS) and Hurras al Din, thereby accommodating Russian concerns about these extremist factions while keeping other moderate groups at bay, which is necessary for Turkey to preserve its influence.
On 17 September, Putin and Erdogan announced their agreement to clear Idlib of HTS and its affiliates, but without military intervention.
In this vein, they agreed on a roadmap to create a 15-20 kilometre demilitarised zone in Idlib by 15 October. Should the deal fail, the Aleppo scenario might be repeated in Idlib as well.
Nevertheless, the Turkey-Russia deal is essentially a diplomatic victory, although the same cannot be said for the Assad regime. As a result of its dependence on Russia, the Assad regime found itself in a position where it was forced to accept the deal.
If violations do occur, they might be punished, but then again Russia could plausibly have given the green light signalling the beginning of a major Idlib offensive.
What makes this deal different from previous ones is that for the first time, there are observation forces on the ground. Turkish and Russian forces are bound to observe and guarantee that no side violates the deal.
More importantly, this deal was at an optimal cost in both military and humanitarian terms. Had Russia pushed onwards and attacked Idlib, a humanitarian disaster would have erupted embarrassing Moscow on the international stage.
Militarily, an Idlib battle signifies too high a cost for Russia, especially given that the rebels in Idlib are aware that this battle will be to the death.
The US is also not keen on militarily resolving the issue of Idlib, given that a Russian victory in Idlib means the Americans would essentially be out of the game. Thus, the Americans pushed for the deal to be ratified in order to prevent Russian hegemony in northern Syria.
Is the deal holding up?
The deal has undoubtedly saved many lives and bought time for all parties to reconsider their next moves. The complexity of Idlib's situation has made it imperative for involved parties to sit on the table, and agree on a roadmap that can resolve the situation with minimal civilian costs.
The vast majority of Syria's previous ceasefires were doomed to fail and only ended with more bloodshed and destruction.
During the Tehran trilateral summit, Russia seemed uncompromising in its plan to retake Idlib. However, talks in Sochi have yielded in a Turkish-Russian agreement to avoid battle in Idlib, and work on a roadmap to create a demilitarised zone. It seems that Russia found itself in a position to accept the agreement.
To begin with, Moscow realised that its operational plan in Idlib was nowhere near sustainable, unlike its relative success in Homs and Eastern Ghouta.
Second, the Turks made it very clear that Idlib is a matter of national security to them, and Russia understood that the Idlib battle would be more challenging.
Third, the Iranians were not keen on entering the battle because Idlib is not an influence zone for them, and Iran’s domestic situation does not allow it to enter such a bloody battle.
Lastly, all state forces in Syria are suffering from war fatigue, including Russian forces. On the other hand, it seems that rebels and the opposition are more than willing to fight to the last man, with the looming Idlib battle considered the rebel's last stand.
Morale was high, and Russia was aware that the battle was going to be more challenging than the previous ones in Eastern Ghouta and Homs, while possibly recalling its terrible losses throughout urban last-ditch stands in the battles of Grozny and Chechnya.
All in all, should this deal take shape without violations from the different protagonists, diplomatic talks may slowly and surely facilitate a roadmap for a political resolution to the conflict.
If so, then it would be followed by redrafting Syria’s constitution, the establishment of a central government, and the organisation of general elections.
It is important to note that at the of writing this article, the deal has not been fully implemented. Syrian regime forces have violated the deal in several areas within the designated buffer zone. Some rebel forces, on the other hand, are refusing to evacuate through the designated buffer zone despite Turkish attempts to convince them to withdraw from their locations.
However, as we have always witnessed in the past seven years, unpredictability and instability are bywords of the Syrian conflict, made all the more so with the prevalence of international stakeholders in a conflict that increasingly resembles a proxy war with every passing day.
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