AMMAN — As the Turkish-Russian ceasefire agreement in northwest Syria took effect on March 6, Muhammad Abdulhai left the Atme internally displaced person (IDP) camp near the Turkish border, heading back to his hometown of Qastoun in al-Ghab Plain in the northern countryside of Hama province.
The 28-year-old was not, however, returning to his home for good; instead, he merely came to take whatever furniture remained to Atme.
“There’s nothing left [in Qastoun], not even the basics,” Abdulhai told Syria Direct. Most other IDPs from al-Ghab Plain were following suit, returning to collect their belongings before heading back to the IDP camps along the Turkish border. The number of families returning to stay in the town could be “counted on your fingers,” he added.
His account was confirmed by Muhammad Hallaj, director of the Response Coordination Group, a local humanitarian organization.
“We have not recorded people returning to their villages south of the [Aleppo-Latakia international] M4 highway, even though this area is outside of regime control,” Hallaj told Syria Direct. Instead of returning, he added, people are “moving their furniture towards the areas where they are displaced.”
On March 5, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, reached a ceasefire agreement in northwest Syria which established a “security corridor” 6 kilometers deep on either side of the M4 international highway.
The northern side, according to the Turkish Foreign Minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, will be patrolled by the Turkish military, while Russian forces patrol the southern side. However, the fate of villages south of the M4 remains unknown.
The fate of the area under the M4 (in black), but above government territory, remains unknown (Liveuamap)
The area outlined in the agreement begins from Tronba, a village on the outskirts of the city of Saraqeb, passes through the cities of Ariha and Jisr al-Shughour and comes to an end in Ain al-Hor, the westernmost point of the M4 controlled by the opposition.
The ceasefire agreement also stipulates that Turkish and Russian patrols will be conducted on both sides of the road beginning on March 15.
Further, according to the Russian and Turkish Foreign ministers, Sergey Lavrov and Mevlut Cavusoglu, both countries are looking forward to providing comprehensive protection for all Syrians and providing the conditions for IDPs to return to their homes.
A fragile, vague agreement
The Ankara-Moscow agreement was preceded by an intense Turkish military escalation against government forces and their allied militias’ position in Idlib province. In response to a February 27 airstrike that killed dozens of its soldiers, Turkey launched “Operation Spring Shield” on March 1. Also, a previous meeting between Turkish and Russian officers had failed to halt the government offensive in northwest Syria.
Most important, however, is that the implementation mechanism of the ceasefire agreement is unclear and “people do not have confidence in the ceasefire agreement,” Hallaj said, because “all previous truces have been breached.”
“In the first three days of the agreement, we documented 17 [ceasefire] violations in the area, in addition to a buildup of the regime’s forces,” Hallaj said. This fuels residents’ fears that there will be another, “even more intense military operation” in the region, according to Hallaj.
At the same time, “Turkey sent huge military convoys after signing the deal, which is indicative of a renewed military operation,” Mahmoud al-Shamali, a journalist from the town of Kafr Aweid, south of Idlib, told Syria Direct. Shamali, who is currently living in the Atme IDP camp, added that “the truce is temporary, just like the previous truces.”
Official statements from Damascus and Moscow have only reinforced doubts about the durability of the ceasefire agreement. Buthaina Shaaban, the political and media adviser to Bashar al-Assad, said that “there is nothing in this agreement that restricts or prevents the Syrian Army from continuing its battle against the terrorists; the battle might be completed at any time.” She went on to add that Jisr al-Shughour and Ariha will be back under government control once the agreement is implemented.
Her statement was preceded by a similar one by the spokeswoman of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, who said that “Damascus and its legitimate partners are the ones who are responsible for fighting the terrorists in Syria.” She further emphasized the necessity of eliminating “terrorist organizations” in Syria.
“The fate of the area is tied to [what happens] on March 15,” Hallaj said, adding that “it’s impossible to evaluate the effect of the deal on civilians, especially with regards to IDP returns until after this date when the guarantors start their joint patrols on the international highway [M4].”
However, Ahmad Sheikho, a spokesperson of the Syrian Civil Defense (known also as the White Helmets) in Idlib, ruled out “the return of IDPs unless there was a permanent ceasefire with international guarantees such as from the Security Council and the United Nations.”
The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Lauren Remaley and William Christou