A little over a week ago, Idlib was on the verge of a major assault by Syrian and Russian forces with the UN warning of potentially catastrophic consequences. However, a Russian-Turkish deal forged in the Black Sea resort of Sochi has spared the Syrian province from a major attack, at least for now.
Indeed, it is difficult to envisage this deal as anything but a temporary solution to the massive military and geopolitical tensions that are centred on Idlib. Even in the unlikely event that all elements of the deal run smoothly, the Syrian government is not going to relinquish its ambition to retake the entire country.
Another inherent problem with the deal is the chequered history of deal-making between Moscow and Ankara over Syrian conflict zones. Previous “de-escalation zones”, negotiated between Russia, Turkey and Iran, collapsed as the parties were unable to exert sufficient deterrent and containment pressure on either the Syrian government or the rebels.
Given the high stakes involved in Idlib there is little reason to expect a different outcome. If this wasn’t bad enough, there is an additional reason to expect the collapse of the deal. The US applied great pressure to stave off a joint Syrian-Russian offensive on the province. In view of rapidly evolving and multi-faceted geopolitical tensions, Syria, Russia and Iran will be anxious to defy Washington in the long run.
By all accounts, the Russian-Turkish agreement came as a surprise, especially as an earlier summit in Tehran just ten days before the Sochi meeting involving Iranian, Russian and Turkish leaders had failed to produce a consensus on de-escalation in Idlib.
Despite protestations to the contrary, at the psychological level the deal must have had a depressing effect on the Syrian government and its supporters. Its anti-climactic impact must be measured by several weeks of preparation and mobilisation in which the Syrian Arab Army and allied militias had engaged in the run-up to the anticipated offensive on Idlib.
However, the agreement thrashed out in Sochi does not even begin to address the Syrian government’s basic concerns and interests. For a start, there is no guarantee that Turkey has the will or the power to suppress jihadist elements in the province, which by all accounts constitute the dominant force therein.
Whilst jihadists affiliated to Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS, formerly the Nusra Front) are required to pull out of a demilitarised zone on the edge of Idlib, beyond that basic provision there is widespread scepticism about Ankara’s ability to rein in all of the jihadists, let alone drive them out of the province.
At any rate, two jihadist factions, namely Horas Al-Din and Jabhat Ansar Al-Din, have already rejected the deal. Whilst both are ideologically close to HTS (from which Horas Al-Din is a breakaway faction), nevertheless they are sufficiently independent in operational terms to prevent the emergence of a coherent jihadist front in Idlib.
Beyond the jihadist camp, the more mainstream rebels, including pro-Turkish groups organised as the National Liberation Front (NLF), do not constitute a united front either. The NLF competes with the broader Free Syrian Army (particularly groups which are not closely aligned with Ankara) for support and resources.
The Syrian government, in tandem with the intelligence services of Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, will seek to exploit these divisions with a view to destabilising the rebel and jihadist position in Idlib.
More broadly, the Syrian government and its allies will likely continue to conduct small-scale operations in northern Latakia province and the edges of Idlib province. These operations will continue to draw support from the Russian air force in Syria. At some point there will be an escalation and the Russian-Turkish agreement will erode beyond recognition.
The geopolitical context
As ever in the Syrian conflict the latest agreement takes place against a dense geopolitical backdrop. Foremost, the US made clear its strong opposition to a major Syrian-Russian offensive, even though it would have removed jihadist elements which the US regards as terrorists and has periodically bombed since September 2014. To save face, though, and to maintain the pretence of policy consistency, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Joseph Dunford, has called for a “precise” counter-terrorism campaign in Idlib as opposed to a full-scale offensive.
For Washington, the retaking of Idlib by the Syrian government would represent a major blow to the US position inside Syria. America maintains around 2,200 troops in eastern Syria ostensibly to aid the fight against Daesh, but the latter’s collapse has not prompted US leaders to withdraw their forces, leading to accusations of misleading deployment and mission creep.
In fact, the US appears to have re-adjusted the purpose of the Syria deployment, as expounded by bombastic national security adviser John Bolton. He says that US forces will remain in Syria so long as any “Iran-related” forces remain in theatre.
In reality, the US needs Syria to remain territorially divided and unstable in order to justify its military deployment and its alliance with PKK-aligned Syrian Kurdish forces. A Syrian government victory in Idlib would motivate Damascus and its allies to concentrate on retaking territory in the north-east which would necessitate a full-scale war with the Kurdish-led, so-called People’s Protection Units.
More broadly, and at a strategic level, a combination of factors, foremost of which is continuing Israeli aggression against Syria and escalating region-wide Iran-US tensions, will propel Damascus and its allies to challenge the US position in Syria incrementally. Retaking all Syrian territory, save for Kurdish-majority areas, would constitute a robust Syrian response to America’s uninvited and thus technically illegal military deployment on Syrian soil.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.