Russia and Turkey reached an agreement on September 17, 2018 in the Black Sea resort of Sochi to create a demilitarised zone in Syria’s Idlib province. The joint Russo-Turkish declaration on the same day averted the carnage that, according to the United Nations, could have become the worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century.
The agreement was concluded after frantic diplomatic wrangling between Turkey, which is the main backer of Syrian rebellion, and Iran and Russia, who support the regime of the incumbent president Bashar al Assad.
Before the Sochi summit, another meeting of the three powers was held in Tehran on September 7 in order find a solution to the Idlib issue. The failure of the Tehran summit had resulted in an imminent regime attack on the region, which is the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria.
The Sochi agreement was an unexpected development. It called for the creation of a demilitarised zone to be set up by October 15 along 9-12 miles of land that would separate the rebels from the regime forces along the southern fringes of the Idlib region. The zone will be controlled by Russian and Turkish troops. All the armed groups within the area will be required to surrender their heavy weapons.
The United Nations warned that an estimated 800,000 people will be displaced if there is a full scale ground offensive in Idlib. Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, more than 7 million people have been internally displaced. The number of people who have left the country is estimated to be over 5 million
At present, the proposed demilitarised zone is crowded by thousands of armed fighters, including the ones belonging to the al-Qaeda inspired Hayat Tahrir al Sham (HTS). Ankara has no control over the HTS which is the dominant force in Idlib. However, it has troops on the ground and a dozen observation posts established after a de-escalation agreement reached in 2017. Turkey also enjoys leverage over the National Liberation Front (NLF), which is a loose coalition of moderate rebels.
The presence of a multitude of armed groups in Idlib with their different ideologies and motivations, and how Turkey persuades all of them to abide by the terms of the Sochi agreement, is something that will decide the fate of the region in the days to come.
In early September, the prospects of a major regime offensive against Idlib seemed imminent. The international community feared a repetition of the same violence meted out by the regime and its allies in Eastern-Ghouta, where the population was subjected to barrel bombs and chemical attacks. More than 1,700 civilians perished during the offensive. Eastern Ghouta fell in April 2018.
In Idlib, such an offensive would have proved even more devastating. The province is home to around 3 million people, which is ten times higher than Eastern-Ghouta. Idlib is surrounded by regime forces on three sides. On the fourth side, towards the east lies Turkey, however, Ankara has already sealed its borders for fear of a renewed inflow of refugees. In case of an attack, the population of Idlib would be completely trapped. This could result in a bloodbath on an unprecedented scale.
The United Nations warned that an estimated 800,000 people will be displaced if there is a full scale ground offensive in Idlib. Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising more than 7 million people have already been internally displaced. The number of people who have left the country is estimated to be more than 5 million.
Assad has been accused of repeated use of banned chemical weapons during the course of the civil war. The international community feared that the regime may again use those weapons in Idlib in order to gain an easy victory.
After the Sochi agreement, there is very little chance that Assad will dare use chemical weapons in Idlib, especially in the face of a Western threat of immediate retaliation, however, the idea cannot be completely dismissed because the Russo-Turkish agreement does not confirm to the regime’s plans of reclaiming every inch of Syrian territory from the rebels.
At present, the regime controls around two thirds of the Syrian territory; the Kurds control the second largest chunk, which they are ready to hand over to the government in return for a degree of autonomy. The rebels control only 9% of land. Assad is clearly on the way to regaining control of the entire country.
Given a long history of broken agreements during the course of the Syrian conflict, it seems highly unlikely that the Sochi agreement will hold and morph into a permanent settlement. Russia had previously shown complete disregard for civilian casualties during its military campaigns, however, once Turkey sent in its military personnel and munitions into Idlib in order to reinforce rebel positions, Moscow seems to have realised that a direct confrontation with a NATO member may not be a great idea after all.
For the time being, the bloodbath in Idlib may have been averted but until the international community formulates a comprehensive solution for the Syrian crisis, the fate of more than 3 million civilians trapped in Idlib will continue to hang in the balance.