Without a long-term political solution to the Syrian conflict, the fate of the last rebel-held province of Idlib will likely be determined militarily.
The Sochi agreement on Idlib between Russia and Turkey was expected to come into effect on October 15. Fighters and heavy weapons should have been pulled out from a 15-20 kilometres demilitarised zone separating the Syrian regime from the armed opposition and fighters from Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an alliance led by al-Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate. However, the challenges to implementing the agreement are immense and indicate that Moscow and Ankara are really buying time. While an offensive does not seem imminent, a confrontation in Idlib remains inevitable.
As Turkish and Russian authorities are finalising the parameters of the demilitarised zone and gearing up for potential joint patrols with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), infighting has increased in recent weeks in the areas under their respective control. The idle fronts surrounding Idlib are prompting erratic confrontations among fighters. However, business as usual continues in the four major border crossings separating the Syrian regime areas from the armed opposition and HTC fighters. All armed rivals continue to benefit from trade, customs fees and the black market stemming from this irregular situation in Idlib, which is the last standing de-escalation zone of the Astana process that began last year.
In the areas controlled by the Syrian regime, unruly groups are becoming testy. Street battles continue in eastern Aleppo between militias affiliated with the al-Berri tribe and Shia fighters who fled the Kefraya and al-Fouaa areas last April. The Syrian army has been unable to rein in these fighters, which raises questions once again regarding how resource-stretched this army is and to what extent it can exert control over recovered areas. Both Russian and Syrian regime officials have indicated that the Sochi agreement is a temporary one, but they do not seem to have a long-term plan to deal with the Idlib challenge.
However, the Sochi agreement’s burden of implementation has primarily fallen on Ankara, a cost Turkey had to incur to prevent a Russian-led offensive. The Turkish approach in Idlib has so far been balancing the rivalry between the major armed groupsin some instances and in others tipping the scales in favour of those who are most loyal. Established earlier this year, the National Front for Liberation (NFL) and the Syrian Liberation Front were enabled by Turkish authorities as counter alliances to HTS, which controls nearly 60 percent of Idlib province and has 30,000 fighters (of which 10,000 are foreign) according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).
The past weeks witnessed the assassinations of key HTS commanders in what apparently is an attempt to sway the al-Qaeda-linked alliance to accept the Sochi agreement. HTS is divided along ideological and ethnic lines revolving around the proximity or not to al-Qaeda as well as between Syria- born fighters who are receptive to the idea of coordinating with Turkey and foreign fighters who might not stand down without a fight. HTS reluctantly issued a statement on October 14 endorsing the Sochi agreement. Subsequently, four hardline groups defected from HTS and formed a separate war room to coordinate the battle against the Syrian regime.
Fighting these groups will pose a challenge for Ankara, which has typically avoided such confrontations that might further weaken its control over Idlib. Turkish authorities do not want to be perceived directly fighting armed groups in Idlib on behalf of Russia and the Syrian regime. The HTS leadership will have to decide between remaining neutral, confronting those who defected from its ranks or fighting against the Turkish-backed groups. It will also have to determine whether it will stay the course or dissolve itself and join the NFL ranks as Turkish authorities are hoping, a scenario that seems improbable at this point.
The chaos and power struggles are expected to continue in the coming weeks, whether as infighting between HTS groups or between HTS and NFL/Syrian Liberation Front. The Turkish army might become directly involved against those who challenge the Sochi agreement so as to prevent a Russian-led offensive in Idlib. Ankara has armed its allies in Idlib in recent weeks in preparation for such a scenario.
The only way for Turkey to prevent an offensive in Idlib is to either fuel infighting in the province or launch an offensive; the latter might carry great political and military cost. The best-case scenario for Turkey is to enforce the demilitarised zone while retaining HTS influence in Idlib since their fighters have proven to be more effective in the likelihood of a possible Syrian regime intervention.
The interest of both Moscow and Ankara remains for now to avoid a war in Idlib, but these circumstances might change. One wild card is the fallout of the October 2 killing of Saudi commentator Jamal Khashoggi, as one of its unintended consequences has been the US-Turkish rapprochement. It remains to be seen how the renewed ties with Washington will impact Ankara’s relations with Moscow. Meanwhile, Turkey is expanding its military and political role in Idlib, which will make the Syrian regime offensive an even more difficult objective to achieve. Without a long-term political settlement of the Syrian conflict, resolving the pending status of Idlib might be a military one.