Although the Idlib ceasefire agreed between Turkey and Russia holds, both Turkish and Syrian armies are amassing troops and heavy weapons along the buffer-zone in anticipation of resumed hostilities.
Since the implementation of a ceasefire in Idlib, north-western Syria, between Moscow and Ankara at the start of March, the region, which has witnessed virtually unending fighting since the start of 2020, has been in a state of cautious calm.
Despite the many challenges, both internal and external, as well as continued sporadicskirmishes between the forces of the Syrian Government and Opposition, the Idlib ceasefire has held, providing much respite to the millions of embattled Syrians who have been forced to seek shelter in an ever-diminishing stretch of land.
Despite the fact that the ceasefire is holding, factions on all sides of the conflict are anticipating its failure and making preparations for such an eventuality. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), both the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) are reinforcing their respective positions in the region.
According to the SOHR, the SAA, alongside its allies from the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), is bringing in heavy weapons and artillery to the strategic town of Saraqib. Syrian, Hezbollah and IRGC militias were also reported to be amassing along Saraqib, as well as Kafr Nabl in southern Idlib and the Zaqija and Shashbo Mountains straddling southern Idlib and northwest Hama.
While Moscow has been keen to retain its relations with Ankara, Damascus has a particular motivation in spoiling the deal in a way that justifies continued military operations and take control of the whole of the M4 Highway running from Latakia to Aleppo City. The fact that the ceasefire agreement is rumoured to require Opposition factions to withdraw from southern Idlib has only motivated Damascus to increase its sabre-rattling more.
On the other side, the TSK has also been amassing its positions. Most recently, the TSK established new posts in Ghassaniyah, west of Jisr al-Shugour, as well as the nearby areas of Bidama, Najiya and Za’iniya. Ankara finds itself in a particularly-challenging spot, as the ceasefire it agreed to was criticised widely by the Opposition. Hard-line factions, such as Tanzim Hurras al-Din, the unofficial al-Qaeda affiliate, were particularly vocal about its rejection and is believed to be behind a bomb attack on a TSK convoy last Friday that killed two Turkish soldiers.
It is in this tense environment that the TSK is attempting to hold joint patrols with the Russian Military Police (RMP) along the M4 Highway. These patrols have, so far, been cut short due to security risks, as both local activists and military factions have blocked the highway. Hard-line factions were also accused of blowing up several bridges along the M4 to limit the patrols.
Syria had a long history of failing ceasefires and it is no surprise that many expect the same now. However, the fact that the ceasefire has already lasted so long is an impressive feat and, perhaps, represents a hope for the future. If nothing, the break gives many locals respite and an opportunity to deal with other brewing crises.