Will Turkey and Russia-brokered new cease-fire in Idlib hold?

Internally displaced Syrian children play in Ras Al-Ain province in Syria. About 300,000 people fled toward Turkey from southern Idlib in December alone. (Reuters)
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Updated 12 January 2020

Will Turkey and Russia-brokered new cease-fire in Idlib hold?

  • Regime forces have for a long time been pushing to recapture Idlib, the last stronghold of rebels in Syria

ANKARA: Turkey and Russia agreed for a cease-fire in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province to be implemented by Jan. 12. 

The cease-fire is expected to stop the flow of hundreds of thousands of civilians toward Turkish border towns over recent weeks, following the air and ground attacks of Russian and Syrian regime forces.

Turkish officials are categorically against any new refugee flow from Idlib, where about 3 million civilians live, as the country already hosts about 3.6 million registered Syrian refugees.

In December alone, about 300,000 people fled toward Turkey from southern Idlib, according to data from the UN.

Idlib is largely controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), a former Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

The 2018 Sochi agreement between Ankara and Moscow included evacuating all radical groups from Idlib by Turkey, with no big success so far.

The six-year-long UN cross-border aid has also come to an end on Jan. 10 to Syria, although civilians depend on the delivery of supplies. Regime forces have for a long time been pushing to recapture Idlib, the last stronghold of rebels in Syria, and they are backed by Moscow and Tehran. However Ankara is staunchly opposed to Syria’s Bashar Assad.

The two highways that connect Aleppo to Damascus and Latakia that go through southern Idlib have strategic importance.

Navvar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, said while the cease-fire may not be the first it may be the last chance for the region. 

“The cease-fire will only prevent the regime from doing any further ground attack at the time being,” he told Arab News. “But the attack will continue because they already have the excuse — the presence of HTS and other extremists. The ball is now in the Turkish field and it is the last chance. Ankara has to secure and clear the area from any HTS presence in line with its previous commitments because if not, it cannot take all excuses from Russians and regime forces to attack the area.”

Joe Macaron, a resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, said the gap between the timing of the Idlib cease-fire between the Russian and Turkish announcements reflected once again how improbable it was for both sides to reach a consensus on this issue.

“It is not clear yet whether this cease-fire will echo previously failed attempts or is meant to effectively establish Idlib as a “de-escalation zone.” The latter seems difficult for Turkey to implement as Moscow demands disbanding HTS and the opposition-led Salvation government and allowing the Syrian regime institutions to enter Idlib province,” he told Arab News.

For Macaron, in the absence of a clear roadmap to address the wider challenges of the Syrian conflict, mainly reaching a political solution, cease-fire announcements in Idlib are temporary fixes to manage the ups and downs of the Russia-Turkey relationship.

“As Moscow and Ankara grow closer, their regional disagreements persist,” he said.

For some, to get Russian covert support for its military deployment to Libya, another battleground, Turkey may give some concessions in Idlib for the Russian-backed Syrian regime. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who support different sides of the conflict, recently called for a cease-fire in Libya.

Macaron thinks that the Syrian and Libyan cease-fires reflect Putin and Erdogan’s ambitious plans to share power in the region.

“However, there are limitations to this plan as they do not have full control of events in Libya and their interests remain contradictory in Syria, hence both cease-fires are not guaranteed to last long,” he added.

Russian mediation reopens major highway in NE Syria

Updated 26 May 2020

Russian mediation reopens major highway in NE Syria

  • Syria records 20 new cases of coronavirus in largest single-day increase

BEIRUT/DAMASCUS: Traffic returned to a major highway in northeastern Syria for the first time in seven months on Monday, following Russian mediation to reopen parts of the road captured last year by Turkey-backed opposition fighters.

Syrian Kurdish media and a Syrian Kurdish official said several vehicles accompanied by Russian troops began driving in the morning between the northern towns of Ein Issa and Tal Tamr. 

The two towns are controlled by regime forces and Syrian Kurdish fighters while the area between them is mostly held by Turkey-backed opposition fighters.

Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters captured parts of the highway known as M4 in October, when Ankara invaded northeastern Syria to drive away Syrian Kurdish fighters. The M4 links Syria’s coastal region all the way east to the Iraqi border.

Four convoys will drive on the M4 every day with two leaving from Tal Tamr and two from Ein Issa, according to the Kurdish ANHA news agency. The report said a convoy will leave from each town at 8 a.m., and another set of convoys will do the same, three hours later.

The ANHA agency added that the opening of the highway will shorten the trip between the two towns as people previously had to take roundabout, side roads.

“This is the first time the road has been opened” since October, said Mervan Qamishlo, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces.

Russia, a main power broker with Turkey in Syria, mediated the deal to reopen the highway, he said. Russia and Turkey back rival groups in Syria’s nine-year conflict.

Coronavirus cases

Syria reported 20 new cases of the novel coronavirus on Monday, the largest single-day increase to date.

The war-torn country has recorded 106 infections and four deaths so far, and new cases have increased in recent days with the return of Syrians from abroad.

Syria has kept an overnight curfew in place but has begun to open some of its economy after a lockdown. Doctors and relief groups worry that medical infrastructure ravaged by years of conflict would make a more serious outbreak deadly and difficult to fend off.