Towards peace in Idlib?

Bassem Aly , Friday 20 Mar 2020

Turkey and Russia have reached a new ceasefire deal in Idlib in northwest Syria

Putin during a Security Council meeting in Moscow (photo: AP)

Turkey and Russia agreed on the terms and conditions of their ceasefire deal in Syria’s Idlib region last Friday, which was originally reached on 5 March.  

Following four days of negotiations in Ankara, Turkish and Russian forces decided to deploy joint patrols across the major M4 motorway and establish a security corridor in the area. The corridor is six km north and six km south from the motorway. The M4 links the regime-controlled cities of Aleppo and Latakia.

A Kremlin press statement said that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan had agreed to “maintain a regular dialogue at various levels, including personal contacts.” The two men are concerned about ensuring a “stable cease-fire and further stabilisation of the situation.”

But this might not mark the end of the conflict. For Yezid Sayigh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, Turkey has a major incentive to abide by the ceasefire, but little ability to ensure it lasts if Russia or the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad “do not want that.”

He stated that Turkey’s primary motive in getting a ceasefire was to prevent a new influx of Syrian refugees into its territory. It was still trying to move refugees already in Turkey to the “Spring Peace” zone in northeast Syria through a plan to resettle one million there, he said.

“But frankly the probability of this happening is low,” Sayigh said. “The ceasefire agreement is full of problems waiting to happen, and Russia will almost certainly move to exploit those problems in a matter of months, if not sooner,” he added.

The deal is extremely important to the Turks. Before the 5 March ceasefire announcement, 60 of their soldiers were killed in clashes in Idlib. Furthermore, a new refugee crisis is threatening.

The UN announced in February that more than 900,000 people have been displaced in the region since late 2019, as “hostilities are now approaching densely populated areas.” UN officials said then that they were concerned about the conditions of women and children in the region, “with families displaced several times in freezing temperatures.”

Through almost a decade of war, many Syrian displaced people have moved to Idlib. When fighting approaches, they take the next step, which is to cross the Turkish border.

Aykan Erdemir, a former Turkish MP and senior director of the Turkey programme at the US Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told Al-Ahram Weekly in February that Erdogan was negotiating with the Russians in Idlib to prevent a new refugee wave.

“Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, is also the top destination for the one million displaced Syrians in Idlib. Such a new refugee wave would exacerbate the growing anti-refugee sentiment in Turkey, further eroding support for the Turkish government,” he said.

But the situation goes much deeper than refugees. Despite the deal, each party to the conflict has its own plans. The Al-Assad regime is interested in maintaining control over Idlib and other remaining parts of the country, Russia seeks to establish itself as a heavyweight player in the region through backing the former, and Turkey has the same vision for itself by opposing the regime.  

It is not clear whether the ceasefire agreement will lead to a change in these plans. Yet, there is still room for a rapprochement between them. After announcing a ceasefire on 5 March, each side complained about the behaviour of the other in Idlib.

Turkish local media reported on 9 March that Al-Assad’s forces had violated the agreement 15 times during the first day of the ceasefire, including by “engaging in harassment fire with a machine gun on a Turkish military convoy transporting supplies” and firing three mortar rounds near another unit.

On Monday this week, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said “terrorists” in Idlib were not abiding by the deal and were conducting counter-offensive actions. “To carry out provocations, terrorists have been trying to use civilians as a human shield,” the statement read.

But there have been understandings on other issues, and these may facilitate the implementation of the Idlib deal.

Oil is now part of the Russian-Turkish conversation. Erdogan has announced that he has invited Putin to jointly manage the Deir Ez-Zor oil fields in Syria, now managed by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish armed groups.

“I made the offer to Putin that if he gives financial support, we can do the construction, and through the oil obtained there we can help destroyed Syria get back on its feet,” Erdogan said on 10 March.

Erdogan said that Putin was examining this issue. Turkey has also bought Russia’s S-400 missile-defence system in a $2-billion deal that has put Ankara’s relations with NATO and the United States in question.

*A version of this article appears in print in the  19 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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