Idlib residents optimistic, but experts fear Turkey’s Syria deal with Russia could collapse

Residents in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib are cautiously optimistic about a deal struck between Russia and Turkey to stave off a Syrian government offensive on the rebel-held region.

The agreement, announced after a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi this week, details a plan to establish a demilitarised zone between Syrian government troops and rebel forces in Idlib.

As part of the deal, Russian and Turkish troops will patrol the buffer zone, while Turkey will work to disarm and dislodge extreme jihadist groups from the enclave. President Bashar Assad’s troops, backed by Russia and Iran, have for weeks been massing near Idlib, the last major rebel-held area left in Syria after seven years of bloody civil war.

“Regardless of the parties involved, people support this agreement because to them this is the only way to stop the Assad regime attacking their region,” said Ahmad al Khattab, a 28-year-old Idlib resident.

“There is a big relief among the local population here in Idlib now,” said 51-year-old Yasir Soufi, who lives in Idlib. “People believe this agreement is perhaps the best possible solution to their suffering.”

Soufi said people in Idlib do not believe Syrian regime troops would be able to return Idlib and “so now we see people starting to rebuild their houses and reopen their stores”.

Idlib has a population of more than three million, including many rebel fighters and civilians evacuated from other parts of the country captured by Syrian government forces.

But analysts are less optimistic about whether the agreement will stick.

“The agreement can’t be permanent, it could delay a Syrian regime offensive for a few months, but nothing can be guaranteed after that,” said Fabrice Balanche, a professor at the University of Lyon in France. “Turkey wants to remain relevant in Idlib so this ceasefire would allow it keep its military presence there.”

One of the 10 points of the agreement stipulates that, “all radical terrorist groups will be removed from the demilitarised zone by October 15.”

But Turkey will not easily “be able to eliminate extremist groups in Idlib. So in a few months Russia will come back to Turkey and say: ‘well you failed to combat the terrorists, so we will target them ourselves’,” Balanche said.

 Since 2015, a large portion of Idlib has been under the control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which was formerly affiliated to al Qaeda and known as al-Nusra Front. In 2016, the group said it had severed it ties with al Qaeda. Several smaller moderate rebel groups also have maintained control over pockets across Idlib.

Turkey maintains 13 observation posts across Idlib, which were set up as part of a de-escalation agreement between Ankara, Moscow and Tehran that was signed at Astana peace talks in May 2017.

With the support of Russian airstrikes, Syrian government forces have frequently attacked Idlib, saying they were targeting extremists, but thousands of civilians have also been killed. But Russia has broken such agreements before, analysts said.

“Since its military intervention in Syria 2015, Russia has been targeting opposition forces in all areas, including those that signed ceasefire agreements,” said Shadi Abdullah, a Syrian reporter who closely follows developments in Idlib. “Russia has breached those agreements in many areas such as eastern Damascus, northern Homs and Deraa.”

But, he said, “Russia will face a bigger problem in Idlib if it wants to attack opposition forces because of the strong Turkish stance there. So given the circumstances, the sustainability of this agreement in Idlib depends on Turkey’s ability and willingness to end the presence of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other radical groups by the end of the year.”

In late August, Turkey designated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham as a terrorist organisation. By doing so and moving forward with the deal with Russia, experts say Turkey wants to remain relevant in Syria and let the Syrian Kurds know that Turkey is there to stay.

“Just like how they struck a deal with the U.S. over the city of Manbij, Turkey wants to do the same thing with Russia in Idlib,” said John Salih, a Syrian affairs analyst based in Washington.

Turkey reached an agreement with the United States in early June over the town of Manbij, where U.S. troops are training a Kurdish-dominated force to fight the remnants of Islamic State.

Turkey considers the Syrian Kurdish force, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), to be an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been engaged in a three-decade war with Turkish forces for greater autonomy in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast.

In March, the Turkish military and allied Syrian rebels seized the YPG-controlled district of Afrin, northeast of Idlib.

“Signing an agreement with Russia in Idlib also has a Turkish message to the YPG. It is to tell them that Turkey isn’t going anywhere,” Balanche said.

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