Syria: Syria’s future hangs in the balance of Idlib deal

Date first published: 30/10/2018

Key sectors: all

Key risks: all

On 17 September, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan concluded a deal to prevent what the UN called an “unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe” in Idlib, unlike any seen in the blood-soaked Syrian conflict. The deal for the last major rebel stronghold delineates a demilitarised buffer zone between government and rebel fighters to be patrolled by Turkish and Russian forces.

The initial stipulation on 10 October was that all heavy weaponry would be withdrawn from the zone and rebels labelled as ‘radicals’ required to withdraw by 15 October. The weapons deadline was reportedly observed, but 15 October passed with Islamist groups remaining in the zone. Russia and Turkey vaguely pledged ‘more time’ for withdrawal but since then little progress has been made. Turkey and Russia are ostensibly on different sides of a triangle in this convoluted game but given that neither has the appetite to engage with the other, Idlib’s fragile peace may be maintained for a short while yet.

This lack of progress is represented in international circles. In a summit on 26 October Presidents Putin, Erdogan, Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Angela Merkel reiterated calls for a UN-backed political process for constitutional reform and the safe return of refugees while rejecting separatist agendas. Leaders stressed commitment to end the seven-year conflict but concrete results were not forthcoming, given the challenges in balancing the interests of rebel factions, the regime, and militant groups amid Western countries’ unwillingness to re-engage with Bashar al-Assad.

Russia – with military bases in Latakia and Tartus and forces scattered throughout western Syria – wants to arrange a deal with moderate rebels whereby Assad could remain in power without Idlib, granting legitimacy to Moscow’s continued presence. Iran has Hizbullah and military forces scattered throughout western Syria as well as in the Golan Heights, causing friction with Israel. Turkey maintains a series of observation points around the de-escalation zone and troops stationed in the northern city of Afrin, aiming to maintain an area of influence along the Turkish-Syrian border. The US is fighting IS in their remaining stronghold around the eastern city of Albu Kamal and continues to back the majority-Kurdish rebel group the Syrian Democratic Forces while also assisting in patrolling the northern city of Manbij.

Thus, Idlib’s fate remains the metaphorical battleground of the region. Assad’s regime still wants full control over the entirety of Syria and therefore cannot be trusted to abide by the terms of the Idlib deal, Indeed, it likely views it largely as a stalling tactic to re-group and launch another offensive, as was seen in 2017. If the deal holds, Turkey will have established a substantial node of influence in northern Syria enabling it to better control the Kurdish ‘threat’. Iran will cement itself as a power player in of the Syrian state, as seen in its first moves toward reconstruction. Russia’s influence may decrease if Assad decides to take back Idlib by force, thus its interest is in maintaining the zone. China’s influence could increase, correspondent to the scale of its investment in reconstruction, as the West’s refusal to engage on reconstruction assets would likely see Assad turn east, further undermining Western hopes of having significant influence over Syrian politics. Western governments must at least engage in reconstruction processes, but in the interim, the security of Idlib’s demilitarized zone looks uncertain.