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.