Russian and Syrian forces have agreed, at least for now, to hold off on a major military operation in rebel-held Idlib province, opting instead to allow Turkish forces to set up a demilitarized zone on the periphery of the province and expel the armed radical Islamists that now control it.
Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu made the announcement on Monday, Sept. 17, after a brief summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in Sochi, southern Russia. It raised the prospect that Idlib, packed with 3.5 million people, more than half of them displaced from other areas of Syria, will have at least a month of relative peace.
The two leaders agreed that radical Islamist groups, some of them affiliated with Al Qaeda, must be removed from the Idlib border zone by October 15. They also agreed that Idlib province will remain under the control of moderate rebel forces backed by Turkey — thereby nullifying the goal of President Bashar al Assad for a final offensive to united the country under his control.
Assad wasn’t present as the future of the country was being decided. Russian Defense Minister Shoigu said the Syrian government would be briefed on the agreement.
The decision comes as welcome news for the beleaguered Syrian opposition, which suffered defeat after defeat thanks to Russian and Iranian intervention on the side of Assad, and which feared a battle far bloodier than anything seen so far.
“We were expecting a battle and the shedding of blood of tens of thousands of Syrians, waves of refugees to Turkey and Europe and having to cope with an enormous humanitarian crisis,” said Col. Fatah Hassoun, who represents the opposition forces in negotiations among Turkey, Russia and Iran, known as the Astana process. “The agreement saved us all these things.”
If Turkey succeeds in removing the jihadists, the agreement could prove to be a turning point in the 7-1/2 year-long Syria conflict, in which as many as 400,000 have died. The demilitarized zone will create a buffer zone that extends into government-held territory in Hama, Latakia and Aleppo provinces as well as into rebel-held Idlib, without heavy or medium size weapons.
Erdogan and Putin stood poker-faced as they announced the accord, reached after more than four hours of talks.
“We’ve agreed to create a demilitarized zone between the government troops and militants before Oct 15,” Putin said, specifying that “hardline militants” must fully withdraw by that date. He singled out Jabhat al Nusra, which last year rebranded itself Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and has dropped its affiliation with Al Qaeda, but his remarks clearly applied to splinter groups such as Hurras Al Dinthat that have maintained the Qaeda connection.
It was Erdogan who disclosed that Idlib will not revert to the regime but is to remain under the control of moderate rebels – a demand he has made publicly but until now had not been agreed to by Russia.
“The territory controlled by the Syrian opposition must be demilitarized, and the Syria opposition that is holding those territories will remain there,” he said. “But together with Russia, we will make efforts to clear those territories of radical elements.”
It was not clear what will happen if Turkey is unable to remove, dissolve and disarm HTS and other radical groups by the one-month deadline.
The accord struck in Sochi appeared to be a major advance for Erdogan, who publicly pleaded for a cease-fire in talks with Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Tehran just 10 days earlier, only to be publicly rebuffed by Putin. Yet the reason Putin gave, that none of the radical groups like HTS was a participant in the negotiations and none of the three leaders could speak for them, was more forward looking than it sounded at the time.
By creating the demilitarized zone and expelling the radicals from them, there’s no need to seek their buy-in.
Hassoun, the rebel military representative at the Astana negotiations, was openly pleased that the plan allows rebels to remain in control of Idlib. “It is a success for the opposition,” he said. “The opposition will continue to stay in Idlib, and Turkey will deal with the terrorist groups.”
But he cautioned that detailed plans need to be spelled out for forces on the ground. “Nothing is sure for now,” he said. “You can’t take a political statement to explain a military situation.”
The most challenging aspect of the agreement will be disarming HTS and other such groups. Hassoun estimated that 80 percent of these groups, which number roughly 10,000 fighters, are “ready to dissolve” and can be integrated into the political process with rebels. But he said the other 20 percent will not disband, and they either will end up in a battle against moderate rebels or they will have the option of a safe exit to the desert area in the east of Hama.
He estimated it will take another six months to complete the disarmament process, under which heavy weapons are to be removed from all of Idlib province, “and then,” he said, “there can be a final and complete ceasefire.”
–Roy Gutman reported from Istanbul.
This story was published in collaboration with The Daily Beast.