Turkey has work cut out as Idlib deadline draws near - Journalist

Observers have breathed a sigh of relief since the agreement was signed two weeks ago between Russia and Turkey preventing a potential bloodbath in the western Syrian area of Idlib, the last major opposition-controlled territory in the country.

However, with the deal stipulating that Turkey must remove radical opposition groups by October 15, prolonging the fragile peace will require an agile response from the Turkish side, according to a report by journalist Aron Lund, writing for the IRIN humanitarian news network.

As well as opening the two key highways to the area, the deal calls for a demilitarised zone of between 15 and 20 kilometres and states that “radical terrorist groups” must be removed by October 15 from the buffer strip, which is to be overseen by Russia and Turkey.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has reportedly welcomed the deal, as have the regime’s backers in Iran.

As for the rebels, Turkey’s allies in the National Liberation Front (NLF) coalition appear pleased with the deal, which will allow them to remain nearby as long as they relocate their heavy weaponry outside the buffer zone, Lund quoted International Crisis Group fellow Sam Heller as saying.

“What’s less certain is how other groups present in the area likely to become the buffer zone will react come 15 October,” said Lund.

“While no groups are mentioned by name in the documents published so far, the Sochi agreement is understood to take aim at the NLF’s jihadist rival Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and other terrorist-designated factions,” he said.

Local news reports state that a faction within (HTS) is already willing to withdraw from the demilitarised zone, Lund said.

However, others within HTS are determined not to give any ground, and disagreement within the group could see it fragment into smaller factions, Syrian researcher Ahmed Aba-Zeid told Lund.

“Behind the scenes, Tahrir al-Sham appears to be pleading with Turkey to water down the demands placed upon it, or to help find some other face-saving solution,” Lund said.

If no solution is found, however, Turkey could be forced to back an NLF attack on HTS and any other groups opposing the deal.

“Rebel infighting could be as devastating for Idlib’s civilians as a Russian-backed Syrian army offensive, and may spark unpredictable splits and fissures on both sides of the divide,” Lund said.

While Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has insisted radical groups are already withdrawing from the area, there is “little evidence of movement on the ground,” said Lund, and time is already in short supply before the deadline.

“As things stand, the stalemate seems unchanged: Turkey keeps prodding Tahrir al-Sham to play by the Sochi rules and Tahrir al-Sham is still trying to bridge its own internal divides, said Lund.

“With only two weeks left to go, it’s unclear if Erdogan can implement his side of the Sochi deal – or at least persuade Putin that whatever the situation is like on 15 October, it’s better than a battle,” he added.