Some experts believe the agreement between Turkey and Russia to establish a demilitarized zone in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province will delay rather than prevent a battle for control of the region, the Washington Post (WaPo) reported this week.
On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin reached a deal with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to jointly monitor the creation of a 9 to 15-mile wide demilitarized zone by October 15 that is expected to avert clashes between rebel fighters and pro-dictator Bashar al-Assad troops.
The United Nations has warned that an assault to retake Idlib from the rebels, which include members of al-Qaeda’s Syrian branch and other jihadis, would trigger the “worst humanitarian catastrophe” of the 21st century.
Idlib sits close to Syria’s border with Turkey. It is home to an estimated 3 million civilians.
Under the agreement, Russian and Turkish troops are expected to conduct joint patrols along the zone’s perimeter, eliminate jihadist groups, withdraw heavy weapons, and implement a ceasefire between opposition forces and pro-Assad troops.
However, the Washington Post on Tuesday reported that the deal might only delay the simmering battle for Idlib, considered the opposition’s last major stronghold in Syria.
Lina Khatib of London’s Chatham House think-tank reportedly indicated that “it remains unclear whether the deal will prevent an eventual conflict in the area.”
“We definitely should not think that the Idlib deal is the ultimate deal. What we are seeing is only a measure for the time being. It is not the endgame for Idlib,” she said, the Post reported. “At best, this deal postpones a potential confrontation in Idlib rather than completely eliminates the possibility of an offensive.”
Although he appeared to welcome the deal, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition also seemed to cast doubt on whether or not the agreement will hold.
On Tuesday, U.S. Army Col. Sean Ryan, a spokesman for the U.S.-led Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), told Pentagon reporters that the alliance had nothing to do with the agreement.
“l tell you what, if this holds up and it can save lives and avoid the humanitarian disaster that it could have been, then we’re definitely supporting that But that’s definitely a decision between Russia and Turkey, and the coalition was not involved with that,” Col. Ryan noted.
The Post acknowledged:
[I]t also appeared as though the government and the Syrian opposition have different understandings of where the deal will lead, calling into question its chances for success. All that is known for now, according to the statements issued by Putin and Erdogan, is that the demilitarized zone is to be established by Oct. 15 along a horseshoe-shaped line roughly corresponding to the borders of Idlib province.
Extremist-linked groups are expected to retreat from the buffer zone to areas farther north. The Turkish-backed rebels in the area are allowed to remain but are expected to move their heavy weapons out of the zone. No further details were given, leaving many questions unanswered, including the eventual fate of the province.
Idlib is home to the primary stronghold of Syria’s al-Qaeda branch, considered the terrorist group’s most potent affiliate.
In 2016, the al-Qaeda wing in Syria changed its name from the Nusra Front to Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS). JFS jihadis are now part a jihadist coalition in Syria known as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
Citing Russian diplomats quoted by the pro-Assad daily al-Watan, the Post pointed out that rebel and jihadis in the province are expected to surrender their heavy weapons by November.
Ultimately, the Assad regime is to “restore its authority across the province by the end of the year,” the Post learned.
However, Capt. Naji Mustafa, a spokesman for the Syrian rebels, reportedly said the opposition is not aware of any such arrangements and would refuse to allow Assad to rule over Idlib.
“The Russians are known to be deceitful and untrustworthy, and we are going to keep up our vigilance against being double-crossed,” he declared. “They have not abided by agreements in the past, and we don’t trust the Russians.”
Assad’s ally Iran, which reportedly played a role in negotiating the deal, also praised the agreement as evidence that “diplomacy works.”