Note: The following article was published orginally in the Jerusalem Post opinion section.
A recent ceasefire agreement signed between Turkey and Russia concerning Idlib presents a new step in an old game.
On March 6th, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow to a sign a ceasefire agreement. The agreement centred on the fighting in Idlib in Syria’s northwest that rages between Turkish-backed opposition forces and Russian-backed pro-Bashar al-Assad forces. This agreement comes after weeks of growing tension between the states over the future of the Idlib region and its over three million inhabitants. The question now remains: Will Idlib hold?
For the Russian state, the northwest of Syria serves as a thorn in the side of its efforts to resolve the conflict in Syria and bring territory under control of the government. Russia is the main political guarantor for the Syrian government in the conflict. Acting as a haven for anti-government forces and jihadist forces, Idlib is the last stronghold for the opposition. Capturing this territory would symbolise a victory for the government and serve to legitimise its control in the eyes of the international community.
The opposition in Idlib consists notably of forces armed and backed by the Turkish state. Turkey provides training to the Syrian National Army, National Front of Liberation, Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups in the area. Besides providing military support to the opposition, the Turkish state provides political support to the Syrian National Coalition – the chief political body of the opposition – and acts as the main guarantor for it in United Nations talks over a political solution for the Syrian conflict.
However, this divide becomes complex when considering the other forces that are in the region. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) – a former Al-Qaeda affiliate – holds majority of the power over the Idlib region. Spreading an ideology of Salafist-jihadism and engaging in combat with other opposition forces, HTS is a strong force that occupies the region. If the force remains, foreign volunteers from states such Chechnya, Kazakhstan, Russia and other former Soviet states will continue to fill the ranks of the force.
An added dimension of complexity comes with the millions of inhabitants that reside in Idlib. Those millions of people consist of internally displaced people from elsewhere around the state who fled the government’s military campaigns. Others include civilians who have lived in the region for decades and who do not currently possess the means to leave the area, whether this be due to incoming government forces or prevention by local militias. The conflict in Idlib is creating an ever-growing escalation in the already existing humanitarian crisis in the region.
A complex conundrum
To understand the current cease-fire agreement and the reasons why it is unlikely to hold, it is important to grasp the circumstances that led to the agreement. This means looking at the history of past agreements and offensives concerning Idlib.
Starting in 2017 with the Astana peace summit, the guarantors of the Syrian conflict – Turkey, Russia and Iran – met in the Turkish city to discuss the future of Idlib province. In the series of summits that followed from that one, a roadmap for the region was outlined. As part of this roadmap, the region would be divided into various de-escalation zones where joint patrols would conduct routine patrols with the eventual purpose of demilitarising various militants and bringing the conflict to an end.
Initially met with optimism by the various guarantors of Syria, the roadmap became difficult to implement. For one, pro-government paramilitaries did not respect the agreement and conducted military offensives on opposition held territory in places such as Hama. However, Turkish-backed anti-government forces did not return the respect and instead conducted counter-offensives. The Russian air force and special forces assisted Syrian government forces in these military campaigns, well Turkish armaments and training continued to be provided to opposition forces. Evidently, the Astana process was not working.
After the annexation of Afrin in Syria’s northwest by Turkish forces in early 2018 and loss of opposition held eastern Ghouta to Russian-backed government forces, Idlib saw an influx of displaced peoples. This mass displacement came during the consolidation of control of the region by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. HTS fought a bitter struggle for the region against Turkish-backed forces, including against the Islamist coalition of the Syrian Liberation Front. Culminating in the seceding of control of most of the region to the jihadist group.
Turkish-Russian bilateral relations improved over the course of the three-year period as well with coordination on military matters, strengthening economic relations and geopolitical ties. This contrasts with the tense relations brought on by the shooting down of a Russian airplane in 2015. Russia lifted economic sanctions against Turkey, sold its S-400 missile system to the state and engaged in territorial deal making, especially regarding Turkey’s fight against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units and Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeast of the country.
In late 2018, Putin and Erdogan met in Sochi, Russia to sign another agreement concerning Idlib. This time the parameters of that agreement included demilitarisation of the whole area, combatting of terrorist groups and establishment of Turkish observation posts. Only a week prior to the signing of that agreement, Turkey labelled Hayat Tahrir al-Sham a terrorist organisation to reconsolidate control over the region. Along with the agreement Turkey was given a time period to either disband Tahrir al-Sham or destroy it. This would prove to be a difficult task.
Despite growing bilateral relations between Turkey and Russia, Idlib still remained a contentious issue. Over three million inhabitants remained in the province under de facto administration of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. This contravened the parameters set out in the Sochi agreement. Resulting in an increasingly agitated Russia demanding Turkey do something about the group. The Turkish state’s reluctance to fully disband or eliminate the group resulted in Russia approving an offensive in April of 2019.
This renewed offensive in Idlib placed strain on Turkey and the opposition. The Turkish state brokered a series of ceasefires within August of that year, each of which failed due to pro-government and Hayat Tahrir al-Sham disregard for the agreements. Russian bombardments accompanied pro-government advances across the south-eastern part of the region with village after village collapsing to the weight of the military offensive. A ceasefire came into effect later that month after the pro-government militias unilaterally enforced one in areas recently captured.
Meanwhile, the Turkish state’s focus shifted away from Idlib and more towards the northeast of the country where it planned a military offensive called, ‘operation peace spring’ against the United States-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. This offensive came into fruition during the lull of the Idlib offensive in early October of 2019. A United States military personnel withdrawal from Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ayn allowed Turkish forces to push into the region. Capturing a strip of the border and only ending when Russian intervened to broker an agreement with Turkey.
The agreement that Russia brokered with Turkey established joint patrols between the states and spheres of influence in the northeast. As is custom with Russian-Turkish agreements regarding the Kurds, there is always an exchange of land. In exchange for the land that Turkey acquired in Ras al-Ayn and Tal Abyad, territory recently captured by the government would remain under the government’s control. With many Turkish-backed forces pulled away from the front and sent elsewhere. Turkey now controlled another territory under the guise of a ‘safe zone’ in Syria’s northeast.
In December of 2019, pro-government forces renewed military operations in Idlib with the objective of capturing the whole of the province. Russia approved of this renewal of the offensive as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham remained in control of Idlib with the Turkish state doing little to stop this. However, with the recent finding and killing of ISIS’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Idlib province and increase presence of Hurras al-Din (new al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria), the region increasingly was becoming a haven for Salafist-jihadism. Something that agitated both Russia and the United States of America.
An attempt to save face
In early 2020, Turkey continued to broker ceasefire agreements with Russia for the protection of forces defending Idlib. However, the increasing tiredness of Russia and a lack of control of pro-government forces resulted in a renewal of fighting. After the capturing of Turkish observation posts in Idlib province and the deaths of over thirty Turkish soldiers by the Russian air force, the Turkish state launched a military operation against pro-government forces under the name of, ‘operation Spring shield’. The purpose of this operation, however, was not to stop Russian forces but to save face.
Turkish president Erdogan’s consolidation of power in Turkey coupled with a rise in nationalist sentiment over the years has had the consequence of raising anti-refugee sentiment in the state. This nationalist sentiment comes in part by Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) alliance with the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP). Coupled with a shift in foreign policy in 2016, Erdogan approved of the launch of multiple military operations from 2016 onwards. Boosting the strongman persona that is important for Erdogan in the domestic arena.
These military operations were conducted for a few purposes such as satisfying the growing nationalist base, containing and preventing the rise of a Kurdish statelet along the border as well as providing a place for Turkey to resettle the millions of refugees within its borders. The resettlement of refugees in newly occupied zones, from Afrin to Ras al-Ayn, gives the state a grey zone that is outside the mainland of the state. Allowing the state to satisfy the public by pushing refugees out of main population dense areas.
However, the increasing offensives by Russian-backed pro-government forces create a problem for Turkey. The problems that the Turkish state faces from these military offensives are twofold: The first problem is in the longevity of security over occupied zones and the second problem is in the influx of refugees from Idlib as well as the potential spill over of displaced back into Turkey’s borders. As a result of these concerns, the Turkish state continues to engage in negotiations with the Russian state, especially regarding future status of Idlib province.
The offensive that Turkey launched against pro-government forces recently was not done with the purpose of combating Russia or pursuing regime change in the state. Instead, the offensive was conducted defensively with the aim of protecting Turkish troops and Turkish state interests in Syria. As for the public opinion side of things, Turkish president’s declaration of war against the Syrian state was done to save face and is in line with Erdogan’s strongman persona.
Will Idlib hold?
The question that remains to be answered now is: Will Idlib hold?
The answer to this question is a blunt, ‘no’. No, Idlib will not hold against pro-government forces and Turkey will not come to Idlib’s rescue at the expense of bilateral relations with Russia. Though already proving willing to defend its own forces against attacks from pro-government forces, Turkey will not use the bulk of its military personnel to defend Idlib province. However, as mentioned in prior paragraphs, Turkish foreign policy is no longer focused on regime change. Therefore, there is unlikely to be any increase in operations directed at the Syrian state.
As for the Turkish-Russian ceasefire agreement, the likeliness of this holding is very slim. Past failed ceasefire agreements show that there is no interest by the forces that the parties back to maintain the terms of these agreements. A ceasefire agreement is merely a means for each side to prepare for a renewal of hostilities. The larger state backers of each side are aware of this and thus deal with one another separately at the expense of these forces, as well at the expense of the displaced.
For the government of Syria under Bashar al-Assad, Idlib province is the last opposition held territory in the state. There the armed revolution against Bashar al-Assad’s rule began. A conquest of this area will mean a victory for the government against the opposition. It is due to this reason that pro-government forces loyal to the leader will continue to push against opposition forces until every inch of the territory is conquered. Therefore, for Assad and by extension Putin, Idlib remains valuable.
Turkey as main guarantor for the opposition will continue to engage in a rhetorical performance with Putin and continue to grandstand for the opposition. However, well the president continues to perform, new deals will be made with Russia over the future of Turkish gains in Syria. If Turkey can continue to secure its future interests in Syria, then the fate of Idlib will become more and more less of a concern for the state. And when the time comes, the normalisation of bilateral relations between Bashar al-Assad’s government and the Turkish state will occur.
The people of Idlib are the only victims of this old game of realpolitik between these powerful states. Millions remain under the mercy of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and other Salafist Jihadist groups, well each simultaneously faces the continuous bombardment of Russian-backed pro-government forces. For many, the revolution that once gripped the spirits of the people now only remains in the hearts and minds of those left. The war may be nearly over, but the pain and trauma are unlikely to subside soon. Yet, this has become the nature of this conflict.
Written by Anthony Avice Du Buisson (11/03/2020)