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Unpacking the Russia-Turkey agreement over Idlib

In a bid to avert what the UN envoy for Syria called “the perfect storm,” Russia and Turkey recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to create a 15-20 km demilitarised zone between government forces and rebel fighters in Idlib province. It seems that for now a humanitarian catastrophe has been averted, and Russia’s defence minister said there would be no military operation. However, concerns arise about the real purpose of the MOU, its enforceability, and whether it can ultimately prevent conflict.

The battle for Idlib would be far greater than previous operations in an already bloody Syrian civil war. For example, the province is over 6,000 square kilometres (compared to east Aleppo which covered approx. 45 square kilometres); its population is almost 3.5m (10 times that of east Aleppo), and includes hundreds of thousands displaced persons from other areas in Syria; and is the last bastion for the rebel opposition, which holds a plethora of groups under different leadership backed by the Turkish military, as well as up to 10,000 al-Qaeda-linked fighters. This explains why Russia has been hesitant about a full military operation and is unwilling (or even unable) to commit the required manpower to carry it out.

Instead, the MOU seeks to create a demilitarised zone patrolled by Russia and Turkey along the line of conflict between rebels and Syrian regime forces, but won’t include the Syrian-Turkey border crossing, controlled by the Jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). The agreement suits both Russian and Turkish strategic interests. Russia has called off a regime assault that Turkish intelligence estimated could send over 250,000 Syrians to the Turkish border (to add to the 3.5m Syrian refugees already in Turkey). In return, Turkey will commit to pulling radical groups out of the zone and ensure that other rebel groups hand over their heavy weapons.

Turkey’s questionable influence over the rebels

Yet while Russia committed itself to restraining a Syrian government attack, it remains unclear whether Turkey can force many of the rebel groups to disarm in the demilitarised, let alone force out other terrorist groups from the area. Turkey has considerable influence over one of the two major dominant factions in Idlib – the National Liberation Front (NFL). Yet NFL’s main rival, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which Turkey has committed to removing from the demilitarised zone, is spilt over its relationship to Turkey. The more pragmatic side is led by HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Golani, who appears willing to work with Turkish intelligence but refuses to submit to its control. Yet Al-Golani is under increasing pressure from jihadist critics, many of whom are Jordanians and Palestinians, who have gathered in a pro-al-Qaeda splinter faction known as Hurras al-Deen.

Moreover, Turkey has limited influence over other smaller rebel factions such as the Chechyan Junoud al-Sham and Uyghur Chinese Turkestan Islamic Party which operate in areas close to Latakia and Aleppo and could become spoilers.

The MOU states that Russia and Turkey will together “designate” which rebel groups must disarm and be removed from the zone. Turkey will likely want to designate only those groups it has influence over, whilst Russia, keeping in mind its Syrian ally, may decide that Idlib’s rebels are all terrorists pure and simple.

Reimplementing ‘territorial integrity’ clashes with Turkey’s interests

Following the demilitarised zone and removal of weapons and rebel groups, it is being reported that the MOU is a precursor to a third and final phase: the return of Syrian government institutions to the area. This phase was clearly articulated in a statement from the Syrian regime, which said the MOU is a ‘time-bound agreement and it is part of previous agreements on de-escalation zones resulting from the Astana track … essentially stemming from commitments to sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Syrian territories as well as liberating all the Syrian territories whether from terrorism and terrorists or from any illegitimate foreign presence’. Thus, the MOU is not primarily about a separation of fighters and acknowledgement of the need to find a political solution to the area, but rather employs the Astana formula of tampering down violence to eventually “reconcile” rebel areas via military assault or negotiated surrender.

Assad is clearly unwilling to accept any power sharing in Idlib especially after watching the areas of al-Bab and Afrin mutate into Turkish dependencies: reports claim electricity is now wired in over the border, Turkish is taught in schools, Ankara pays rebel salaries, Turks oversee police and local administration, and public squares are named after Erdogan instead of Assad. And the MOU allows for Turkish observation post (of which there are 12 scattered in the province) to be “fortified and continue to function”. It thus remains unclear how Russia aims to square the Syrian goal to fully regaining Idlib and the MOU’s acceptance of Turkish forces in the province.

That said, as history has shown, Damascus and Moscow can decide any time that their interests have changed and adopt a different strategy, with little opposition from Western powers.

The long-term future of the rebels: Surrender or defeat

Even if Turkey manages to convince “moderate” elements within the extreme rebel groups to move 15-20km inward, the question remains: what to do with them, and their ‘lighter’ weaponry, in the long-term? The MOU, at its most basic reading, has prolonged what appears to be an inevitable push by the Syrian regime to retake the province. Previous de-escalation agreements under the Astana process utilised Idlib as a pressure valve to transport the most extreme rebels out of other areas. Yet this time, there is nowhere for them to escape. With the West still firmly on the sidelines, what happens next inescapably comes down to two alternative courses of action: negotiated surrender – highly unlikely for the more extreme groups, as we see in their rejection of the MOU – or military assault and capitulation. Despite the Turkish-Russian understanding, Assad remains the final arbitrator.