The Uncertain Reprieve in Idlib

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

September 24, 2018

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, announced the establishment of a “demilitarized buffer zone” in the Syrian city of Idlib. The agreement, tenuous as it may be, creates some breathing room for the millions of civilians for whom Idlib is the last safe haven from the Russian-backed Syrian government forces. The agreement seems to hold for the moment, despite the downing of a Russian military plane. Questions remain, however, both about the intentions of the various parties involved in the conflict, as well as the ongoing presence of foreign fighters in Idlib.

According to the government-run Syrian Arab News Agency, the agreement between Russia and Turkey establishing a demilitarized buffer zone between rebel forces and government troops was a “welcomed” development, “stressing that it was an outcome of intensive consultations between it and the Russian Federation with complete coordination between the two countries. An official source at Foreign and Expatriates Ministry told SANA on Tuesday that the Syrian Arab Republic has always welcomed any initiative that stops bloodshed and contributes to reestablishing security and stability to each inch that was struck by terrorism as it stresses determination to go ahead in its war against terrorism until all the Syrian territories are liberated.”

Writing for the pro-Erdogan Daily Sabah, Burhanettin Duran suggests that the brokered agreement has strengthened the Turkish president’s standing in the country and abroad and that it “represents a major diplomatic victory for Erdoğan. For the first time, Turkish and Russian forces will participate in coordinated patrols to remove terrorists from Idlib. Moreover, Monday’s meeting in Sochi opened a new window of opportunity for Turkish diplomacy. The deal will strengthen Turkey’s hand regarding the launch of a political process in Syria, a process that has involved Ankara trying to start dialogue with Germany, Russia and France on the issue. Starting with his upcoming trip to Germany on Sept. 28-29, Erdoğan will enjoy greater influence in diplomatic negotiations in the wake of the most recent developments.”

In one of this week’s editorials, the Gulf News editorial staff characterizes the agreement as a “glimmer of hope” which now must be used to ameliorate the misery of the civilians caught up in the conflict: “There is now at least a glimmer of hope that those 3.5 million might be able to endure and hold out anew with word that both Turkey and Russia have agreed to create a demilitarized buffer zone in a narrow strip across Idlib province that will divide friend from foe…. Too often in the past, the international community has been unable and indeed unwilling to organize humanitarian relief and safe corridors for the sick, injured and broken people to leave for safety. At least now, thanks to this tentative deal, there is the prospect that the civilian population may be spared such suffering and sacrifice…. The question remains, however, what will come of it down the road? Is the inevitable assault just postponed until such a time as the regime forces have amassed more strength?”

There are already signs that the fragile truce may unravel, as a Russian military plane was mistakenly shot down by Syrian forces after allegedly changing course to avoid Israeli jets, leading Hurriyet Daily News’s Murat Yetkin to speculate that there are other factions ready to sabotage the agreement: “There is no time to enjoy the brief relief brought by the news of the deal between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on Sept. 16 after weeks long of escalating tensions over the Syrian town of Idlib…. The Defense Ministry said the Syrian air defense had shot down the Russian plane but it was Israel, which was responsible for that…. It seems all parties involved are happy, at least on the official line of the de-escalation of tension around Idlib and generally in Syria, except for those who might have an interest in a divided, exhausted and weak Syria and thus would like the war to keep going.”

Another Turkish observer, Daily Sabah’s Ilnur Çevik, theorizes that the United States is on the list of those countries who want the Russian-Turkish agreement to fail: “The road ahead is not easy. It is full of danger and traps. For one thing the United States, which has grudgingly ‘welcomed’ the Turkish-Russian initiative, in fact is unhappy. They wanted Idlib to serve as a wedge between Ankara and Moscow but that did not happen. They wanted Assad to unleash his atrocities in Idlib and use this as an alibi to hit the Damascus regime very hard. That too did not happen. They wanted everyone to focus on Idlib while they continued to occupy the east of Syria and establish bases in the Syrian Arab heartland with the help of PKK-affiliated terrorist groups while also grabbing the oil and natural gas fields.”

Others are keen to highlight the fact that Idlib is not only home to millions of civilians, but also the location of hundreds and thousands of Al-Qaeda affiliated fighters, which is likely to complicate matters further. For example, Al Ahram’s editorial warns that “[w]hile it is easy for international mediators to repeat hollow words such as ‘there can be no military solution’ for the war in Syria, the reality on the ground is far more complicated, especially as so many international parties became involved in the Syrian conflict over recent years. One of the largest factions that maintains a presence in Idlib is Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham, which previously prided itself as being a branch for Al-Qaeda terrorist group in Syria…. Many other factions, that were financed and provided with weapons through Turkey and Qatar, were also transferred to Idlib following their defeat in recent offenses by the Syrian army, Russia and Iran.”

A similar sentiment is shared by Hasan Abu Nimah, who, in an op-ed for Jordan Times, turns the tables on the international community by asking what, given the presence of those foreign fighters in Idlib, “would happen in Idlib if the Syrian government were not able to liberate its land from the extremist groups. Would Idlib, practically bordering Europe, then remain a permanent base for Al Qaeda and the other terrorists gathered there from all over the world? I find it extremely difficult to understand how and why such terrorists who shocked the world repeatedly with their indiscriminate and outrageous attacks on civilians, not just the 9/11 attacks in the US, but all across this region, would deserve protection under the guise of saving civilian lives.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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