Last weekend, the presidents of Turkey, Iran and Russia met in Ankara to discuss, among other things, the latest developments in Syria amid Turkish concerns over the consequences of a Syrian government offensive in the last rebel enclave, Idlib.
The Russian-backed offensive against that last opposition enclave is aimed at keeping the rebels at arm’s length from the Russian air base in Latakia, re-opening the Damascus-Aleppo highway and eventually retaking the city of Idlib, the provincial capital that has been held by the rebels since 2015. As such and for the past six months, much of Idlib and its environs have been under intense attack from the Syrian Arab Army on the ground and Russian warplanes in the air. The government forces have been able to seize strategic villages, including the medieval fortress town of Qalaat al-Madiq, a major crossing point into Idlib, and the towns of Kafr Nabudah and Khan Shaykhoun. The long-dreaded offensive has left 1,089 civilians dead and 600,000 displaced.
In September 2017, the three Astana guarantors, (Turkey, Iran, and Russia), negotiated a partial ceasefire in Idlib under a “de-escalation” agreement, monitored on the opposition side through twelve Turkish military outposts deployed along a blurry deconfliction line between the rebels and government forces. A year later, a deal between Turkey and Russia, announced in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, headed off a seemingly imminent Syrian army offensive and reinforced the earlier deal. The Turkish-Russian agreement tacitly committed Turkey to oversee the withdrawal of jihadis along with all heavy weapons, tanks, rockets systems and mortars held by all rebel groups from a 15-20 km “demilitarised zone” bordering government-controlled areas, and allowed the re-opening of the Latakia-Aleppo and Damascus-Aleppo highways, which pass through Idlib.
Ankara and Moscow, however, remain at odds over the interpretations of the Sochi deal and its implementation. Moscow has made clear that a de-escalation arrangement is by no means a permanent alternative to the eventual return of the state to north west Syria. On the other hand, Turkey views the deal primarily as a tool to prevent a Syrian offensive on Idlib, and preserve a “de-escalation zone” out of Syrian government control until a broader political settlement can be reached for the eight-year old Syria crisis. As such, Turkey has agreed that moderate rebel groups would be separated from radicals and the latter would lay down arms and move out of a defined demilitarised zone. However, Moscow and Ankara remain at loggerheads over which rebel groups in Idlib should be designated as terrorists. When the agreement was announced, Hai’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), a group formerly linked to al Qaeda, controlled around 50% of Idlib Governorate; today they control almost all of it. Ankara believes that much of HTS is fundamentally pragmatic and a potential ally for eliminating radical transnational jihadists, while Russia treats HTS uniformly as a terrorist group, and describes the Sochi ceasefire as conditional upon HTS’s removal from the demilitarised zone and “separation” from the armed opposition. In terms of implementation, Turkey claims that they have successfully rolled back jihadis and cleared the demilitarized zone of all heavy weaponry. On the other hand, the Russian Ministry of Defence has stated that HTS attempted to attack Russia’s Hmeimim Airbase twelve times in April 2019 using unmanned aerial vehicles.
The fate of Idlib Governorate and its three million inhabitants could be determined by the leaders of the Astana trio. It is no secret that if Russia greenlights an all-out offensive, an opposition-led infantry ground force will not be able to stop it. Nonetheless, a military solution in Idlib would still be exceptionally costly for all parties, Russia included. Retaking Idlib militarily would strain Moscow’s relations with Turkey and would require force levels that could only inevitably lead to a bloodbath in the densely-populated province. More significantly, capturing Idlib militarily would risk scattering jihadi militants now inside Idlib across Syria, and globally, including into post-Soviet states. If Russia hopes to avoid that, it needs to consider an alternative to a catastrophic military victory.
Today, a return to the existing Sochi understanding will do little good, in part because – to acknowledge an uncomfortable reality – any agreement that is to prove sustainable needs to address the divergent views between Russia and Turkey over some of the key actors in Idlib, including HTS. Russia can help the Syrian government crush Idlib, if it so chooses, and if it is willing to absorb the grave cost of victory, including thousands of jihadis scattered across Syria and beyond. If it hopes to spare itself that cost, however, it needs to consider alternatives to a military victory, which would have grave security consequences.