Much scepticism surrounds the fate of the city of Idlib following the deal concluded between the two presidents, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, that led to the suspension of the long-awaited military operation against the jihadists and their allies. Only a few details of the deal have been revealed, enough however to shed doubts both about its validity and its sustainability. Nevertheless, optimism pervades the Russian, Iranian and Turkish side – whereas the jihadists in Idlib and surroundings no longer see a confrontation as inevitable. The key difference now, after the Putin-Erdogan agreement, is that Turkey will no longer be present to defend the jihadists, and neither will Erdogan stir the European pot, threatening an “exodus of millions” (into the old continent) as leverage to avoid the battle of Idlib.
What is not apparent from publicly available information is that both Erdogan and Putin helped each other climb down the tree of Idlib they climbed up over the last months and have found a suitable and adequate compromise.
Before the Idlib deal, Putin promised to clear the city and its surroundings of jihadists and supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rhetoric: “every inch of Syria will be liberated”. The Syrian army gathered most of its forces within the 4000 sq km that represent the northern area occupied by Turkey, its proxies and other jihadists. That triggered a strong reaction from the US, whose forces occupy parts of the north east (al-Hasaka) and east (al-Tanf) of Syria.
The prospect of the liberation of Idlib (had no deal been made) – followed by the elimination of ISIS’s occupation of any territory in the Levant – would have invalidated any pretext for US forces to stay and continue occupying Syria. This would have forced Washington to dismantle its three main bases (out of around a dozen all in all) and airports established in Syria when their military presence was questioned in Iraq. These factors had pushed the US to gather European allies and jointly devise a plan to cripple the Syrian army using the pretext of Assad’s apparent “chemical attacks” and to stop the flow of refugees into the old continent. Responding to the largest Russian military manoeuvres opposite the Syrian coast to date, the US gathered its forces in the Mediterranean.
Russia and Iran understood that the US was determined to find – or even trigger – any excuse to destroy the Syrian army. This would have meant humiliation for Putin, were Russia not to have replied in defence of its Syrian ally. Moscow would have been left with a very weak country, its title of superpower linked and limited to the number of its atomic bombs and its weight at the UN, but visibly impotent to protect its allies. In the event of Russian retaliation to a US attack on Syria, the possible outcome would have been unimaginable.
For Erdogan, war on Idlib would have meant the loss of his position as a leader in the Islamic world. He would have followed Saudi Arabia into ignominy–a former leader of the Islamic World, Saudi Arabia has lost status because of its open its alignment with US-Israeli policy in the Middle East and in particular on the Palestinian cause. In the event of a Syrian/Russian liberation of Idlib, Erdogan’s Turkish proxies would have been undefended and his status within Turkey would have been undermined.
But Russia and Turkey are united by fundamental strategic interests, even more so than Russia and Iran. Moreover, Putin is making a breakthrough inside NATO by striking a commercial, military and strategic alliance with an important NATO member state, Turkey.
Everybody who signed the deal, including Iran (who played an important role in its success), has a lot to lose and little to gain in the event of a battle of Idlib. Only the jihadists have everything to gain from such a battle. The Putin-Erdogan deal imposes a 15-20 km demilitarized zone in the area exclusively under jihadist control. That means no armed jihadists of Jabhat al-Nusra (aka Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) will be present with their weapons in eastern rural Idlib, rural Hama and Sahl al-Ghab. This means all fortifications must be removed, all heavy weapons dismantled, and no attacks allowed against Syrian army positions.
October 10 or November 15 or even January 15 will never be far enough away for Turkey to fully implement this deal. This means Turkey will have to start implementing just what is possible, to impose its control over Idlib city and rural Idlib. That means only two possibilities: either the jihadists re-evaluate their options and decide to attack Turkey, or they merge with Turkish proxy groups and allow all foreign fighters to leave.
The first option is a suicidal one because the Syrian, Turkish and Russian armies, and above all the tens of thousands of “rebels” who have become Turkish proxies, will be against them. Jihadists could rely on Allah and start a fight within these 4000 sq km and, with no future prospects, die while fighting. This is highly unlikely, although one cannot exclude the possibility of small groups rejecting the deal, triggering infighting in Idlib and the surrounding area.
Meanwhile, Syrian allies have reinforced their positions in the city of Aleppo with a large number of special forces units. This is a response to intelligence information revealing the plans of jihadists to attack the “apartments 3000 project”, in case the deal goes sour.
Russia is not looking for a new war in Syria but wants to end the 7 years of war. Therefore, it would be unthinkable for it to start an attack on Idlib while many US and EU military forces are present on full alert, some already running military manoeuvres in the Mediterranean, quite ready to bomb the Syrian Army. The Idlib deal offers Putin and Erdogan a way out of their boxed-in positions and will upset US plans to prolong the war in the Levant. As long as Turkey shows not only good intentions but also concrete implementation of some of the agreed terms of the Idlib deal, there will always be room for its extension. One thing is certain, Turkey will certainly impose its control over the city of Idlib and its surroundings. This is the price President Assad is ready to pay right now- until the US finally buries the hatchet of war.