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As Russia mediates Syria-Turkey talks, can new Idlib truce hold?

As the international spotlight was on intra-Libyan talks in Moscow, Russia mediated talks between Syria-Turkey security chiefs
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov leave a joint news conference following their talks in Moscow, Russia January 13, 2020. Pavel Golovkin/Pool via REUTERS - RC24FE9RU9P6

Ali Mamlouk, special security adviser to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, reportedly met with Turkey's intelligence chief Hakan Fidan in Moscow Jan. 13. According to Syrian state-run media, at the trilateral meeting mediated by Russia, the Syrians “demanded Turkey respect Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in full and immediately withdraw its forces.” The Syrians also allegedly demanded Ankara honor the Sochi agreement signed in September 2018, which would entail “the freeing of Idlib from terrorists and heavy arms” as well as "unblocking the highways Aleppo-Latakia (M4) and Aleppo-Hama (M5)."

The high-level Turkish delegation, which included Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, arrived in Moscow for discussions on the two key international crises that engaged both Russia and Turkey — Libya and Syria.

The fact that critical intra-Libyan talks took place in the Russian capital on the same day diverted, perhaps not coincidentally, most of the attention from the Syrian angle. Yet the top Turkish officials made the unlikely decision to meet with Syrian colleagues in Moscow, only to have the latter lecture them about their key divergences. The official Syrian media failed to mention that the parties engaged on other, more significant issues, one of which was likely an elaboration of the new Adana agreement to help both address the Kurdish issue in northeastern Syria.  

But some remarkable developments between Turkey, Syria and Russia have indeed occurred on other fronts. First, a cease-fire came into effect in the Idlib de-escalation zone at midnight Jan. 12. Russia also suspended its airstrikes in Idlib. The truce must have been agreed on by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan during their talks in Istanbul Jan. 8.

Moreover, the Russian leader may have deemed it necessary to discuss the issue with Bashar al-Assad during his Damascus visit on the Orthodox Christmas Day, Jan. 7, before departing for Istanbul. Any cessation of a campaign in Idlib is a sensitive issue for the Syrian regime, which brings to the fore Damascus’ inability to conduct military operations and regain control over “every inch of Syrian land” on its own, and its need for direct Russian assistance in both matters. Every delay in progress on the ground thus points to the regime’s military dependence on Moscow amid Damascus’ recent efforts to display its autonomy in military matters.

The outcome of the recent campaign in the Syrian northeast fell short of Assad’s expectations. Damascus failed to reestablish control over the territories held by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The failure can be attributed to Washington’s change of heart, as it decided not to withdraw its troops and retained its military presence in northeastern Syria. As a result, it disincentivized the SDF — at least for the time being — from discussing the conditions for transferring its forces and territories to Damascus’ protection. They only allowed a limited number of the regime’s forces and the Russian military police into the border zone under the Sochi memorandum signed in October 2019.

Therefore, the new phase of the offensive, codenamed Dawn of Idlib, which was launched Dec. 19 against terrorist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Syrian opposition, was expected to bring reputational gains to Assad. A resounding military victory in Idlib should have compensated for the dubious “success” — in terms of the outcome — in the northeast.

At the height of the military operation Dec. 24, the Syrian Army’s General Staff released a statement claiming that 40 settlements in the Idlib province had been taken by Damascus.

The takeover of Jarjanaz was the greatest achievement. The government troops reached as far as the outskirts of Maarat al-Numan, a symbol of the Syrian revolution and the opposition’s stronghold. The town, located on the M5 highway, is also strategically important. Control of the town paves the way for further advances along the motorway toward Saraqib and full control over this artery. However, the cease-fire agreements between Moscow and Ankara effectively thwarted the headway of Assad’s forces and prevented them from entering Maarat al-Numan, which was portrayed as the major target of the offensive.

Thus, another phase of the operation in Idlib ended with a limited, tactical military success for Damascus, just like previous operations.

The Syrian regime may therefore be frustrated that the unblocking of the M4 and M5 highways — if not the complete resolution of the Idlib issue — has been delayed again. However, Damascus has to realize that its forces and the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) are not the only ones that deserve credit for the successful advance. In fact, Turkey just stood by and did not assist the Syrian opposition in preventing Assad’s offensive. Its Operation Peace Spring could not have taken place absent a cease-fire deal secured by Moscow and Damascus.

Consequently, one cannot rule out that Ankara, having achieved its goals in northeastern Syria, offered Damascus a chance to establish control over another part of the Idlib de-escalation zone. All the more so because fighters of the Turkish-backed Syrian National Army (SNA) turned out to be sought-after on a different front, in Libya.

SNA units were deployed to Tripoli to reinforce the forces of Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj, of the Government of National Accord, in their fight for the Libyan capital. Yet the Syrian regime’s advance deep into Idlib, including the capture of Maarat al-Numan, was not on Turkey’s list. The operation ended on the formal pretext of a new wave of Syrian refugees at the Turkish border and Ankara’s concern about the situation. At the same time, Moscow and Ankara must have agreed to the Idlib cease-fire in a single package with their joint initiative to cease hostilities in Libya, which was announced at the Putin-Erdogan meeting in Istanbul.

Nevertheless, the Idlib truce is a temporary solution. Despite Russia’s success in convincing Assad of its expediency, a longer respite looks out of the question. A source in the Syrian military told Al-Monitor that the 25-day cease-fire deal may be extended if Idlib “sees the problem of radicals solved and other rebel groups cut their ties with HTS and join the [SNA].”

On paper — when it comes to the moderate opposition factions on the ground, including the National Liberation Front — everybody is formally part of the SNA since October 2019. In reality, nothing has been done to integrate those opposition groups into the SNA. Specifically, the 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th legions, four new corps supposed to join the first three legions in the areas of Operation Euphrates Shield and Operation Olive Branch, have yet to be formed. Moreover, the Idlib territories where the moderate opposition operates are de facto ruled by the HTS civilian administration, the so-called Syrian Salvation Government. Therefore, the replacement of the Salvation Government with local opposition councils must be another condition that could separate the moderate opposition from the radicals. Obviously, it may cause another military escalation between HTS and the moderate opposition in Idlib. It remains to be seen whether Turkey and the SNA are up to it.

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