Analysts: Neither Turkey nor Russia lived up to agreements on Syria's Idlib

As tensions rise between Turkey and Russia over the situation Syria’s Idlib, each side is blaming the other for the collapse of the de-escalation agreements, which were supposed to prevent a destructive conflict breaking out in the province.

In response to Russian charges that it failed to do so, Turkey insists it has lived up to all of its requirements for the establishment and enforcement of a de-escalation zone in Idlib, agreed under the Astana peace process.

The de-escalation agreement was ostensibly intended to stabilize the province and avert war between the Syrian regime and the predominant group in Idlib, the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).

Russia and Turkey also reached an additional ceasefire agreement in September 2018, under which the latter was given the sole responsibility of containing HTS and creating a buffer zone in the region.

Ankara fears a mass displacement caused by a regime offensive in Idlib would send a million more refugees fleeing into Turkey. So far, this latest Russian-backed regime offensive since it began in December.  has displaced at least 900,000 Syrians, according to the United Nations, Turkey warns that if the offensive is not stopped by the end of February it will respond with military force against the regime and backs its rhetoric by pouring in reinforcement forces with heavy weaponry.

Analysts consulted by Ahval News explained how both Turkey and Russia failed to live up to their agreements in Idlib.

“Turkey did not fulfil its commitments under the Astana Agreement,” said Professor Joshua Landis, Director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

He pointed out that under the September 2018 agreement, Turkey was supposed to facilitate the reopening of the key highways in Idlib and arrange the withdrawal of HTS from a planned demilitarized zone along with their heavy weaponry.

Not only was none of this done, Landis said, but the group “continued to fire on Aleppo neighbourhoods and Syrian troops from the zone.”

In January 2019, HTS was even able to gain ground across Idlib, consolidating its dominance over the strategically-important province, when Turkish-backed Syrian militiamen surrendered territory to them after just over a week of fighting.

Consequently, far from containing HTS, Turkey even failed to prevent the group from expanding.

However, Turkey is not solely to blame for the unfolding crisis in Idlib.

“It’s obvious neither side is complying with the spirit or letter of the agreement,” said Aron Lund, a fellow at The Century Foundation.

“Russia has backed Syrian government offensives that have captured much of the supposed de-escalation zone in Idlib, and, before that, captured all the other de-escalation zones they agreed on,” he said.

“That’s not how a ceasefire is supposed to work.”

Lund believes it’s hard to determine who is more at fault the most since there could be additional undisclosed agreements between Ankara and Moscow “and since we don’t know the content and tone of the negotiations that led there.”

Also, he doubts there is an objective answer to the question of who’s more at fault since it’s not, to begin with, a question of the two powers following their agreements in good faith. Instead, it’s about two powers exploiting their written agreement in bad faith to “further their own interests in a conflict that has more to do with military and political power than with interpretations of an agreement.”

The agreement, he added, has also been abused and violated since it was written with Russia and Turkey finding ways to “overlook that when they wanted to.”

“Now, they don’t want to anymore,” he said.

Dimitar Bechev, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, also doesn’t believe that either side made good on their promises.

“Turkey has largely failed to disarm HTS which since the original agreement between [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and [Turkish President Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan managed to seize more ground,” he said.

On the other hand, Russia has made a “mockery” of the very concept of de-escalation by “arguing that the deal doesn’t cover HTS, it has been targeting everyone in the enclave indiscriminately – including factions of the Turkish-controlled Free Syrian Army (FSA) and, most importantly, civilians.”

“In short, the blame is shared, but it’s ultimately Assad and the Russians who caused the crisis (which lots of people predicted from the outset),” Bechev said.

Kyle Orton, an independent Middle East analyst, also pointed out that neither fulfilled their obligations, but added that Turkey “never could have done” because HTS became too entrenched in Idlib for Turkey to uproot it.

This, he said, was by design.

“Russia and Iran made this agreement with Turkey in order to calm the Idlib front while they eliminated each of the other ‘de-escalation’ zones’,” he said.

These zones were Daraa and East Ghouta, both of which the Assad regime recaptured in 2018.

“The diplomatic engagement blunted Turkey’s protests about Deraa, East Ghouta, and the rest,” Orton said.

Orton also said that Assad knew he could leave Idlib until last since they had the pretext of the HTS presence for launching an attack, “a pretext signed-off on by Turkey.”

He concluded by pointing out that the present situation was inevitable since the Assad regime and his Russian and Iranian backers are adamant about reconquering all of Syria and Russia’s ability to direct events on the ground is limited.

All of this “makes Ankara’s apparent failure to see it coming rather baffling,” he said.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.