Syria: Shaky ceasefire in Idlib

Refugees from Idlib arrive at Camp Jadidate al-Huner in Northern Syria. Photo: ANF English.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on March 5, where they agreed on a plan for a ceasefire in Syria’s Idlib province.

Idlib had been the scene of heavy fighting since December, when the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, backed by the Russian air force, began an offensive against the rebels who controlled the province. Turkey responded by sending more than 9000 troops across the border to support the rebels.

Following its latest offensive, the Assad regime controls nearly half of Idlib province.

The fighting, particularly the aerial bombardment by Russian and Syrian air forces, has displaced more than a million people, many of whom are living in the open with little or no shelter.

Previous deals enabled Turkish invasions

The March 5 agreement is the latest in a series of Russia–Turkey agreements in the past four years. Previous agreements involved Russia giving Turkey permission to send troops into various parts of northern Syria to combat the Rojava Revolution — a movement fighting for democracy, women’s rights and equal rights for all religious and ethnic groups.

This democratic revolution began in July 2012 in three predominantly Kurdish areas of northern Syria, and has spread into neighbouring non-Kurdish areas, leading to the creation of the Autonomous Administration of Northern and Eastern Syria.

Turkey sent troops into Jarablus in August 2016 to prevent the spread of the revolution in that area. Turkey invaded Afrin in January 2018, and then occupied a strip of land between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain in October.

These incursions were carried out with Russian permission. In return, Turkey arranged for anti-Assad rebel groups that it supported to withdraw from eastern Aleppo and other rebel-held parts of Syria, making it easier for Assad's forces to capture these areas.

Turkey's aid to the anti-Assad rebel movement has always gone mainly to groups very hostile to the Rojava Revolution. Some of these groups have participated alongside the Turkish army in its invasions of areas under the control of the Autonomous Administration. These groups have now been integrated into the mis-named Syrian National Army, which is armed, funded and controlled by Turkey.

Many of the rebels withdrawn from other parts of Syria went to Idlib, which has been controlled by a number of mutually hostile rebel groups, the strongest of which is the reactionary group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS). HTS oppresses women, persecutes religious minorities and represses campaigners for democratic rights.

While HTS generally collaborates with Turkey, is not totally under Turkish control.

A fragile ceasefire

At the time of writing, the ceasefire is largely holding, despite some small-scale outbreaks of fighting. But there is no guarantee that this will continue.

The Erdogan–Putin agreement provided for the reopening of the M4 highway linking the cities of Aleppo and Latakia, both of which are controlled by the Assad regime. But part of the road remains under the control of HTS.

Turkey and Russia agreed to carry out joint patrols along the M4. But when they tried to do this on March 15, they were blocked by protesters, who were supported by HTS.

Whether the ceasefire holds in the short term, it is unlikely to bring permanent peace. Assad wants to recapture the whole of Idlib sooner or later.

Turkey's main priority remains the suppression of the Rojava Revolution. There is a danger that the ceasefire, if it holds, will enable Turkey to put more resources into its invasion of north-eastern Syria. Currently, Turkish artillery regularly bombard villages in the area.

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