Idlib: Showdown or Slowdown?

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on LinkedIn Share in Email Print article
Written by Daniel Metz

Several unsuccessful ceasefire agreements have been made since the Syrian Civil War began in 2011. The first attempt came together in early 2016 after months of negotiations between 20 countries and was adopted by the UN Security Council in late February. It fell apart less than six months later, and combat resumed in full force. The second, between the U.S. and Russia, only lasted a week in mid-September 2016 before bombing campaigns shattered it.

The third came three months later, in December 2016, between Turkey and Russia. But conflicts violating the agreement flared up just hours before it kicked in, bringing its effectiveness into question, although it lasted until February 2017. The fourth came in early May 2017, when Iran, Russia, and Turkey agreed to demilitarization zones, though many factions in Syria came out in opposition. The fifth, which is yet to fail, was negotiated between the United States, Russia, and Jordan in July 2017 to include the Daraa, Suwayda, and Quneitra provinces.

But the most recent agreement was drawn up between Russia and Turkey in September 2018 to demilitarize the Idlib province. It included a buffer zone implemented on October 15 surrounding the city of Idlib and ranging from 10 to 15 miles. The deal stipulated the removal of tanks, mortars, and artillery systems and tasked Turkey with the gradual extraction of militants holed up in Idlib and their weapons.

The city sits in northwest Syria and now embodies one of the last sources of fuel for the war. About half of its population of 3 million fled to the city as refugees or militants. But in the context of the war, this city represents one of the last strongholds of the Syrian opposition and the scene of what could become one of the worst humanitarian crises since the war began.

The extreme fracture that defines the Syrian opposition has bled over into the rebels’ responses to this new agreement. Some groups heralded it as a strong move towards stability, others favored the agreement but then recanted after seeing ongoing violence, and still others outright rejected it. But this lack of alignment isn’t surprising considering that universal agreement among the hundreds of small and large militant groups has never been a realistic goal.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is relentless in taking back “every inch” of the country. And various reports from around Idlib suggest that government forces haven’t had the patience to wait for Turkey to slowly extract militants and weapons. Aerial bombing operations haven’t resumed, but rebels have said that combat with government forces in demilitarized areas has heated up. Just last week a suicide bomber attacked a government checkpoint, killing 23 soldiers.

With clashes with the Kurds in northern Syria brooding, the quick and complete eradication of threats in Idlib is Assad’s primary goal, regardless of any loss of civilian life. Reports are circulating that the Syrian army is preparing for a full-scale assault on parts of the Idlib province while Russia is conducting aerial reconnaissance operations throughout the province.

Russia is guided more by an uneasiness about the return of the thousands of Chechen fighters who traveled to Syria to join the opposition. Its main objective is to establish enough stability for Turkey to remove militants without them fleeing the country en masse while still allowing Assad to hold his grip over the country.

Turkey, on the other hand, looks to realize two main objectives from the war: reduce both the flow of refugees across its southern border and limit, by any means, the cohesion and integrity of the Syrian Kurds. Both goals stand to prevent what Turkey sees as existential threats to its own stability, population spikes and empowered Kurdish militants in Turkey. Yet, the Syrian government has alleged that Turkey isn’t upholding its end of the agreement, citing the mere presence of militants in Idlib as proof.

Two main outcomes exist for this agreement. The deal, as has happened before, fails, leading the Syrian government to vengefully swoop and beat out all militants. This results in tens of thousands of casualties as civilians flee north and rebels stay and fight.

The second outcome is the successful, albeit slow, demilitarization of Idlib. This results in Assad refocusing on the patchwork of rebel-held areas surrounding Aleppo and the Kurdish-held northwest. This would preclude massive civilian death, but with tensions flaring between rebel and government factions, even the cautious optimism U.N. officials have expressed may be too idealistic.

France, Germany, and Russia ventured to Turkey in late October to discuss Idlib. They collectively issued a joint statement affirming the deal and committing to its continuity, but no other development emerged. Russian and Turkish military leaders reconvened in Sochi this week to assess the status of the agreement. Russia pressured Turkey to take more decisive actions to meet its obligations, but, similarly to the meetings with European leaders, nothing new emerged. Russia and Turkey scheduled new talks together with Iran in Astana, Kazakhstan at the end of November.

The ceasefire has stood now for over a month, four times as long as the shortest-lived agreement but still with plenty of time to fail. With the threat of thousands more civilian casualties in an already brutal war, a slight take on a cliché might be the best policy from here: hope for the demilitarization of the conflict, but prepare for the escalation of violence.