Amid the outbreak of the global coronavirus pandemic, countries in conflict, such as Syria, are in the spotlight. The UN called for an immediate ceasefire in Syria in light of the pandemic after Turkey and Russia announced a ceasefire agreement in the northwestern Idlib province on 5 March. Idlib, a province largely controlled by Al-Qa'ida offshoot Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), has been under heavy bombardment by the Syrian regime, supported by Russian airpower over the past year. The bombardment has pitted the Syrian regime against Turkish and Turkish-backed forces stationed across the province in observation posts set up in May 2017 under the Astana agreement signed by Russia, Iran and Turkey.
Since February, the regime bombardment has resulted in the deaths of over thirty Turkish soldiers in Idlib, with Turkey threatening a massive retaliation. These escalations saw Turkey and Russia agree to a ceasefire on 5 March that includes joint patrols along the strategic M4 highway. The M4 is one of the two most strategic motorways in Syria, running from Latakia to Saraqib, parallel to the northern border with Turkey. The highway’s strategic route also links Syria’s commercial centre Aleppo with Mosul in Iraq, making it important for trade between the two countries.
The 5 March ceasefire agreement followed a series of ceasefire agreements that Turkey and Russia had signed since the Astana de-escalation deal. It is the second of its kind since the beginning of this year. The first was announced on 9 January 2020, after a Syrian regime offensive forced 300 000 Syrians towards the Turkish border, with many living under trees in already overburdened refugee camps. The January agreement did not hold for long as Russia and the Syrian army soon advanced against rebel groups in the province, capturing strategic towns along the M4 and M5 highways. The latter motorway, also called the Damascus-Aleppo highway, is the second most important highway in Syria, beginning in southern Syria near the border with Jordan, and linking the country’s four largest cities: Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, near the Turkish border. It intersects the M4 in Idlib. The route is crucial for the Syrian economy, and used to transport around $25 million worth of business each day before the war. Turkey, which controls twelve observation posts in the province under the Astana agreement, repeatedly warned of escalations as the offensive intensified until Turkish soldiers were killed by regime bombardment in February.
On 15 March, Turkey and Russia conducted their first joint military patrol along the M4, but were forced to stop these after protests by residents. Civilians living in areas along the M4 highway demonstrated against the presence of Russia, and condemned the ceasefire agreement. People opposing the ceasefire agreement called for the halt of Russian-sponsored patrols, and for displaced people to be allowed to return to their homes in Idlib. Russia dismissed these protests as ‘terrorists using civilians as shields’, while Turkey chose to ignore them completely.
Ankara’s approach of ignoring the protests highlights Turkey’s miscalculations in Idlib. Its backing of opposition groups such as Free Syrian Army (FSA), which, together with other groups, has morphed into an umbrella structure now called the National Liberation Front (NLF), as well as its indirect coordination with the HTS (formerly an Al-Qa'ida affiliate called Jabhat Al-Nusra), has yielded both problems and solutions. The groups had assisted Turkey in its operations against Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, helped coordinate its demilitarised zone in Idlib to keep refugees from flocking to the Turkish border, and some of their members have agreed to be deployed by Turkey to Libya to fight against warlord Khalifa Haftar. After the 5 March agreement, these groups defied Turkish orders to stay clear of the demilitarised zone created in 2018. This as speculation rises that the Syrian army and Russian forces will soon resume the offensive in Idlib, ending the almost one-month-long ceasefire agreement with Turkey. With these disagreements, Turkey is struggling to keep its 5 March ceasefire promises to Russia. Russia argues that jihadist groups such as HTS must be eliminated before military operations can be halted in Idlib.
Turkey is also hesitant directly to confront HTS, even though it designated the group a terrorist organisation in August 2018. Turkey had supported HTS and other similar groups earlier in the Syrian civil war, and it is apprehensive about fighting a group with which it had previously coordinated operations. The situation is further complicated by these groups launching attacks against Turkish soldiers in Idlib. Two Turkish soldiers were killed by a rocket attack that Turkey believes was launched by HTS or one of its affiliates on 19 March, two weeks into the ceasefire agreement. Although Turkey said it had retaliated against the perpetrators, it was not clear how the retaliation actually took place. Compounding Turkey’s predicament were protests by Turkish-backed groups since the start of April in Ras Al-Ain and Al-Hasakah areas in the northeast, as well as in parts of rural Raqqa where many Turkish soldiers remain stationed.
Moving forward, the form of Turkish cooperation with rebel groups in Idlib is uncertain, as Russia remains adamant that these groups, in Syria’s last rebel bastion, must be destroyed. The 5 March ceasefire is nearing its end as regime and Russian forces prepare for another round of heavy bombardment of the province, which has already displaced over 300 000 people, most of whom fled towards the Turkish border and its overcrowded refugee camps. Turkey is in a difficult situation, fearing it will face heavy repercussions if it confronts jihadi groups that could launch attacks inside Turkey through inactive cells. Further, attacking the rebel groups could jeopardise its own operations in the province, and its attempts to prevent refugees fleeing the regime bombardment from flocking to Turkey where over three million refugees already reside. Turkey’s predicament is worsened by the fact that it does not want to upset its relationship with Russia, which has allowed Turkey to carry out numerous military campaigns in northeast Syria against Kurdish forces. Despite rollercoaster Turkey-Russian relations over the past few years, Turkey regards Russia a necessary ally as its relations with both the USA and Europe remain precarious.
The deal between Russian president, Vladimir Putin, and Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, regarding Syria’s Idlib province, announced on 17 September, sought to avert a campaign by the Syrian army similar to that in Aleppo, Eastern Ghouta and Dara’a. It followed Erdogan’s appeal to Iran and Russia – his partners in the Astana process – as well as to the USA and Europe to save the three million civilians trapped in the northwestern Syrian province from a fate similar to the one that befell the 400 000 citizens of Eastern Ghouta in March 2018, when Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad launched a brutal bombardment of the area. The September agreement included the establishment of a demilitarised zone twenty kilometres into Idlib from the Turkish border. Turkey insisted that this was necessary to avoid a spillover of clashes on its border, to secure its border by preventing activities of the militant Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), and to prevent an influx of refugees across the border into Turkey.
In terms of the agreement, Turkey was allowed a month – until 15 October – to persuade ‘radical’ rebel groups to leave the demilitarised zone, and ‘moderate’ groups to hand over their heavy weapons. The ‘radical’ groups referred to were – mainly – al-Qaida-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS – formerly Jabhat al-Nusra) and an HTS breakaway (comprising mainly foreign nationals), Huras al-Din, while the ‘moderate’ groups were mostly Turkish-supported organisations. Most of the latter had no choice but to comply; they surrendered their weapons and coalesced into the National Liberation Front (NLF), which began playing the role of a police force centred around Turkey’s observation posts in Idlib. HTS and Huras al-Din did not officially announce their acceptance of the deal, with Huras al-Din emphasising its determination to maintain control over all its weapons and continuing its battle against the Syrian government. However, a week before the 15 October deadline, HTS surrendered its heavy weapons and commenced policing operations with the NLF. Early November, just weeks after the 15 October deadline, Huras al-Din joined HTS and participated in NLF patrols.
The Syrian regime, however, does not feel itself fully bound by the Russia-Turkey deal, and has carried out numerous attacks against various rebel groups in and outside the delineated zone, in violation of the agreement. It insists that all heavy weapons have not been surrendered, and that the deal was only temporary, arguing that the deal’s purpose was to avert bloodshed while preparing the ground for the regime to take over control. Russia agrees on the temporary nature of the agreement; Turkey does not. The arrangement for the province resembles the strategy employed in Afrin,Manbij and the area north of theEuphrates River, where Turkey maintains troops and proxies, ostensibly to prevent activities of the YPG (which it regards as a terrorist group), and to protect its borders from jihadists and refugees fleeing Syrian bombardment. In general, Idlib is regarded as a significant threat by the three states that are part of the Astana process – Turkey, Russia and Iran, even if they do not agree on a strategy to counter it. Despite these opposing interests and strategies, however, the Idlib deal represents a victory of sorts – even if only temporary – for Turkey on the diplomatic and military fronts.
Idlib – the last rebel outpost
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The mountainous Idlib province is in the northwest of Syria, to the west of which are the cities of Tartous, which is home to a Russian naval base, and Latakia, with its large Alawi population that forms the bedrock of support for Asad’s ruling Ba'athist Party. To Idlib’s east is Aleppo, which was Syria’s largest commercial hub before successive battles between rebels groups (including the Islamic State group) and the regime in 2016. To the south is the city of Hama, which experienced large population transfers carried out by the regime in 2016 and 2017. The north of the province forms the border with Turkey, making it a strategic transit route for refugees fleeing the civil war and militants of various stripes entering Syria. The government lost the province to HTS in 2015 after a series of fierce battles, making Idlib one of the regime’s biggest losses. The loss meant that Damascus also lost control of the strategic M4 and M5 highways. The former links Aleppo and Latakia to oil rich Deir Ez Zor and Raqqa, while the latter is a major trade route to Turkey and Europe.
With its 18 000 fighters, HTS controls around sixty per cent of the province, while the rest of the territory is shared between groups that were evacuated under Russian-brokered deals from various parts of the country. They include the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Islamist Ahrar al-Sham. HTS has often clashed with these other groups, but it also collaborated with Turkey since 2017, and it coordinated with Turkey in March in the establishment of observation posts in Idlib as part of thede-escalation zones declared by the Astana process that included Turkey, Iran and Russia.
Despite some coordination with Turkey, HTS continues publicly to denounce Turkey; its leader,Muhammed al-Joulani, emphasised that HTS will not take orders from Turkey regarding the fight against the Asad regime. In reality, however, HTS rejects the Turkey-Russia deal publicly but complies with it silently. The group has also, under Turkey’s direction, been trying to contain its splinter group that comprises mainly foreign fighters, Huras al-Din. Huras al-Din feels marginalised by HTS’s coordination with Turkey, and fears for the safety and future of its foreign fighters if HTS officially dissolves and joins the NLF. This is a distinct possibility, as recent events signal that HTS is considering the possibility of defeat, and might ultimately dissolve the fighting force as part of a deal with Turkey. The group is aware that it will not be able to withstand sustained bombardment by the regime, backed by Iranian militias and Russian airpower. Thus, the group has been silently complying with the Sochi deal, even though it has not formally joined the NLF, which is composed of fourteen rebel groups, including a large contingent of FSA fighters.
Astana de-escalation zones
The Astana deal was reached in May 2017 in Kazakhstan’s capital by the three key foreign players in the Syrian conflict: Russia, Iran, and Turkey. It sought to implement four de-escalation zones in Syria to pave the way for a political process that would end the Syrian civil war, with the three players acting guarantors of the zones.
Under the agreement, Idlib was earmarked for the first implementation of a de-escalation zone. Turkey was to be the guarantor and monitor of Idlib. Twelve observation posts were initially set up by Turkish troops, but Turkey then set its sights on the neighbouring Afrin province, where it targeted the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, whose main component is the YPG. After lengthy negotiations between the three Astana partners, Turkey moved into Afrin with a nod from Russia for Turkish planes to use Syrian airspace.
Control over Idlib is critical for the Asad regime and its allies (Iran and Russia) to declare victory in the conflict which has been raging since 2011. It would give the regime decisive control over all Syrian territory. Their strategy was to deal with Idlib after defeating the opposition in the south – in Dara'a and Quneitra, where the government took back control of territory lost to rebels, and subsequently transferred rebel groups and many civilians to other rebel-controlled areas. Iran was denied a share of the victory in the south because of a Russian agreement with Israel that Iranian forces would leave the south; a number of militias aligned to it, however, did fight with Syrian forces. Iran thus had been anticipating the Idlib campaign when it could fight alongside Syrian troops against the many opposition groups sent there from other parts of the country as a consequence of ceasefire deals. While Iran was looking forward to a battle in Idlib that would finally end all military opposition, Turkey was attempting to prevent a bloodbath and to protect groups allied to it. These opposing interests had already been demonstrated when Iran decried Turkey’s Operation Olive Branch in Afrin in January 2018. Iran also opposed Turkey’s plea to avert a military campaign in Idlib when the three partners met in Tehran on 7 September 2018.
After a war of words with the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, Erdogan bypassed Iran, and flew to the Russian island of Sochi to meet Putin, to craft a deal that would protect the northwestern province from a fate similar to that of Eastern Ghouta and Aleppo, where continued rebel fighting resulted in largescale massacres. On 17 September, Erdogan and Putin announced the Idlib deal, undermining Iranian and Syrian ambitions of a fullscale attack on the province. Since the 15 October deadline for demilitarisation of the 20km zone in Idlib, Iranian militias and the Syrian army have continued to shell rebel positions inside the zone, vowing to retake the province from rebel control, in violation of the Turkish-Russian deal.
The Sochi deal mirrors a strategy that Turkey has employed since the start of the war: deploying Turkish troops inside Syrian territory to occupy and clear out areas along its borders of rebels not aligned to it or aligned to the SDF. Starting with the 2016 Operation Euphrates Shield north of the Euphrates River, Turkey deployed forces along its border within Syria to attack and eliminate IS and the YPG. Although Turkey announced an end to the operation in March 2017, full disengagement did not occur, and it maintains a military presence in those areas. Following the Astana agreement in May 2017, Turkey and Iran continued to butt heads over Turkey’s request to be allowed to enter the Afrin province that was under YPG control. In January 2018, Russia allowed Turkey to use air power and, subsequently, to launch Operation Olive Branch against the YPG. Although Turkey claimed the operation was temporary, its troops and proxies continue to control the province. Turkey hopes for a similar outcome in Idlib, especially after seeing a similar result in Manbij, where it negotiated a roadmap with the USA to clear out the YPG by holding joint patrols with the United States.
The Syrian regime regards the agreement as a short-term plan, and is intent on retaking all Syrian territory. Although Russia has stalled Syrian forces for a while, it is unclear for how long it will continue doing so. With this in mind, Turkey is looking for additional support and recently called on France and Germany to assist. Convening a special summit on Idlib in Istanbul, Erdogan hosted Germany, France, and Russia on 27 October 2018 to effectively obtain commitment to the Sochi deal. Noticeable absentees at the meeting were the USA and Iran. For Erdogan, the summit was an attempt to garner European support over and above Russian support.
The Sochi agreement might have been announced as temporary, and viewed as such by Iran and the Syrian government. However, Turkey has no intention of leaving Idlib soon. It seeks to effect in Idlib the same strategy that it employed west of the Euphrates river, in Afrin and Manbij, where it deployed troops and militia groups acting as its proxies. Turkey’s policy of muscular engagement demonstrates its commitment to maintain its interests and security by permanently controlling areas along its border directly or through proxies. As violations of the deal continue from the Asad regime and its Iranian backers, Turkey seems to have managed to get (at least temporarily) what it wants in northern Syria, thanks to Russia. For Turkey, long-term control is a more durable solution against its enemies in Syria, even if it means disregarding Syrian sovereignty.