Putin and Erdogan meet in Sochi, Russia on September 17. Photo courtesy of Russian Foreign Ministry.
AMMAN: A widely anticipated offensive by the Syrian government and its allies to retake Syria’s northwestern rebel-held Idlib province appeared temporarily averted Tuesday, following last-minute negotiations between Turkey and Russia to stave off a looming assault.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin emerged from negotiations in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi on Monday evening to announce a sweeping agreement establishing a 15- to 20-kilometer wide demilitarized buffer zone separating government and rebel-held areas.
According to Monday night’s agreement, the buffer zone will be enforced from October 15. Responsibility for demilitarizing the area and disbanding armed groups within it before that date will fall to Ankara.
Ahmad Sabah, a civil society worker previously displaced from the Hama countryside to Kafr Nubl in southern Idlib province, said the agreement was cause for cautious optimism among many civilians in rebel-held areas of northwestern Syria.
“All of the people in the liberated areas win something from this,” he told Syria Direct, describing a feeling of “newfound security or—at the very least—calm, for the time being.”
And while Monday’s announcement appears to stave off the immediate threat of what the UN recently warned could be the “worst humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century,” feelings were still mixed among some residents.
Ibrahim a-Shimali, a media activist in southern Idlib province, said he saw the agreement as a temporary fix after years of conflict and displacement—even if it provided civilians relief in the short term.
A protest in support of rebels in eastern Idlib Monday night. Photo courtesy of Edlib Media Center.
“We have lost hundreds of thousands of martyrs. Millions have been displaced outside Syria [who] cannot return to their towns and villages,” he told Syria Direct on Tuesday.
“Many think that the agreement and the survival of Idlib is in favor of the revolution, but I think we have already lost a lot of what was in our hands before .”
Rebels: ‘We won’t give up defending ourselves’
On the ground in Idlib province, rebel commanders speaking to Syria Direct on Tuesday reacted with optimism that a confrontation with pro-government forces appeared to have been averted—while acknowledging that they were unsure of what the agreement could actually mean in practice.
“Within the general framework of this agreement, we see a success for Turkish diplomacy and our Turkish brothers,” said Captain Naji, a spokesperson for the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front, a constellation of 11 different factions formed with heavy guidance and funding my Ankara in May of this year.
The Turkish government has sought to negotiate a way out of the stand-off around Idlib, fearing a massive influx of refugees and hardline Islamist fighters in the event of an all-out offensive on Syria’s rebel-held northwest.
Another rebel commander from a Turkish-backed faction in northern Syria, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to press, said Monday night’s agreement would avoid bloodshed without fundamentally threatening rebel control in northwestern Syria.
“We won’t give up defending ourselves,” the commander told Syria Direct on Tuesday. “Weapons won’t be taken from any particular faction...although factions will have to commit to the provisions in the agreement, which means keeping weapons out of [the buffer zone].”
Syrian government officials meanwhile appeared to welcome the agreement—albeit with caveats.
Syrian state news agency SANA quoted one anonymous Foreign Ministry source on Tuesday who appeared to welcome the agreement, saying it was a result of “intensive consultations.”
The source added that the agreement was “time-bound...with specific dates,” emphasizing the Syrian government’s commitment to “sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity.”
‘This is on Turkey’
While the plan may avert a major offensive by pro-government forces in the short term, analysts suggest that immediate obstacles could stand in the way of plans for a buffer zone—not least the presence of thousands of hardline Islamist fighters who maintain a commanding presence in some 60 percent of rebel-held territory in northwestern Syria.
Nicholas Heras, a fellow with the Center for a New American Security in Washington DC, said that while the agreement represents a significant diplomatic victory for Ankara, it also places the full burden on Turkey to disarm and disband hardline groups.
“This is on Turkey, which will have to be deft with its diplomacy in Idlib,” said Heras. “Turkey will also have to be willing to apply military force where necessary.”
Hardline Islamist groups including Hay’at Tahrir a-Sham (HTS) and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) maintain strongholds in and around northeastern Latakia province and Jisr a-Shughour in Idlib province. Both areas fall within the proposed buffer zone.
Officials from HTS have pointedly refused to join disarmament talks with Ankara in recent months, which HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Jolani framed as capitulation in a speech to followers several weeks ago, calling arms the “source of our power and dignity.”
While the group has yet to release an official statement in response to the agreement, HTS sharia official Abu al-Yaqadhan a-Masri warned followers on the Telegram messaging service on Monday: “Whoever asks you to surrender your weapon deserves most to be fought, ahead of others.”
“The way forward is [by] striking necks,” a-Masri added.
An HTS spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment when contacted by Syria Direct on Tuesday.
The Syrian government has recaptured a series of major pro-opposition strongholds over the past two years, evacuating rebel fighters, their families and those refusing to remain under government control to the country’s rebel-held northwest. Tens of thousands originally from East Ghouta, south Damascus and Daraa now reside in Idlib province.
Following weeks of pro-government troop deployments northward and a devastating bombing campaign across Idlib and north Hama provinces last week, many observers had predicted an imminent offensive on remaining rebel-held territories there.
With additional reporting by Maram al-Abed.
This report is part of Syria Direct's month-long coverage of internal displacement in Syria in partnership with the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and reporters on the ground in Syria. Read our primer here.