In mid-September, Turkish and Russian delegates met in Sochi and emerged with an agreement forestalling what might have been the greatest humanitarian crisis of the Syrian war. Or, as the UN put it, the “humanitarian crisis of the century.” Which is saying something, considering the myriad humanitarian crises trailing in the wake of pretty much every party involved in this war. And there are many involved parties—they aren’t calling this a proxy war for nothing. Just look to the aforementioned agreement: Syria itself isn’t even represented. But I digress.
The agreement reached by Turkey and Russia concerns Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib. It’s the last rebel stronghold, as nearly all of the rest of the country is either controlled by the Kurds or Assad’s forces and allies. Even with the massive waves of migration out of Idlib to Turkey and subsequently to Europe, Idlib’s population has swelled throughout the course of the war as it was shuttled from rebel, to regime, to extremist control. The province is currently (mostly) controlled by the anti-government, former al-Qaeda splinter group Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS). Idlib’s population of more than 3.4 million is about half internally displaced Syrians, and not by chance: since 2015, Islamist militias, rebel forces, and fleeing civilians alike have been relocated–via a variety of international agreements, and by car, bus, and foot—to Idlib. Now, it’s the hub of incurably splintered resistance to Assad and his allies.
Here’s what the agreement does:
- Establishes de-escalation “buffer zones” 15-20 km wide between government-controlled areas and rebel-held Idlib. Lines are mostly real. As in they were determined after the agreement and theoretically are set now. Turkey and Russia will both monitor the areas with patrols.
- Makes Russia responsible for making sure there aren’t any attacks on Idlib. Turkey gets to keep and maintain its observation posts in the area to help out.
- Mandates all “radical terrorist groups” (read: HTS) be removed from the buffer zones by 15 October, along with all sides’ military machinery, weaponry, and other paraphernalia (Turkey is responsible for this).
- Lays the groundwork for reopening some major highways cutting through Idlib province.
- Says stuff about “enhancing” cooperation between Iran, Russia, and Turkey with respect to military operations and combating terrorism.
In my honest opinion, this “victory” is more about preserving strategic relations between Turkey (who kinda sorta backs / hovers over the rebels) and Russia (who is right by Assad’s side in everything, war crimes included). The onus falls on Turkey to implement large swaths of the provisions, and if they don’t–HTS has not, at the time I’m writing this, agreed to the terms of the Turkey-Russia agreement, and other radical groups have come out in bold opposition–the Syrian government would be, technically, somewhat free to launch an offensive and slaughter civilians and rebels alike.
Some believe this marks the end of the Syrian war, and indeed, there are many fewer possible outcomes at this stage of rebel defeat. After 15 October, we’ll know whether or not the agreement will hold. Maybe that will really be the end of the war. What is, possibly, more important, and also still to be determined, is how the proxy powers comprising this agreement–Turkey, Russia, and, between the lines, Iran–will continue to assert their newfound regional power in the coming years.
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