The northwest front of Syria, specifically in the Idlib de-escalation region, is witnessing a cautious calm after the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov announced, on 21 September 2020, that the battles of the Syrian regime forces against the military opposition are "over". This coincides with the end of the recent round of meetings of the technical and military delegations of the Russian and Turkish sides on Idlib, which was held in Ankara on 14 and 15 September 2020, without reaching declared and direct agreements between them. Have the battles really ended in Idlib, and what is the expected form of influence in this region during the coming period?

Expanding Russian influence

While the Russian Foreign Minister’s statement regarding the end of the fighting with the opposition indicated that Moscow would not support any action that would disturb Ankara during the coming period, it did not necessarily mean stopping the battles in the region that Russia wants to access without achieving this goal in any way. In addition to Moscow's previous determination after the signing of the Moscow Agreement/Protocol early March 2020, namely the reopening of the M5 and M4 highways and control over their surroundings, according to what was reported in early September 2020, a preliminary agreement was reached between the Russians and the Turks, prior to the recent technical meeting in Ankara (mid-September 2020), providing for Ankara's renewed pledge to evacuate the area south and west of the M4 highway in favour of the Russians. In return, Russia would grant Turkey and the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition influence in the cities of Tell Rifaat and Manbij (north of Aleppo governorate) in order to ensure that Turkey connects its areas of influence there to one another within what it called the "Euphrates Shield", "Peace Spring", and "Olive Branch", and to remove the anti-Turkish Syrian Kurdish forces (QSD) from Turkey’s area of ​​influence as deeply as possible.

Ankara's delay in evacuating the area surrounding the highway, which brings together a mixture of terrorists from several jihadist organisations, mainly the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), which is an old/new demand of the Russians, has hindered the adoption of the Russian-Turkish understandings in northern Syria and their consolidation to proceed towards fixing them by agreements that map the features of influence in the region.

It is inconceivable that Russia would agree to the opening of the M4 highway, or what is also known as the Aleppo-Latakia Highway, while the joint military patrols with Turkey are subject to repeated attacks. In addition to the TIP, other terrorist organisations also exist in the vicinity of the highway from the west and southwest, namely Hurras al-Din (Guardians of the Religion), Ansar al-Tawhid (Advocates of Monotheism), and Ansar al-Din (Advocates of the Religion). Besides, it is not in the interest of either Russia or Turkey to remain in those areas.

While the Russians have recently repeatedly stated that their warplanes only bombed targets belonging to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, Organisation for the Liberation of the Levant, formerly Jabhat al-Nusra (Front of the Supprters)) in Idlib, it may be understood from the statements of the Russian Foreign Minister that Moscow may not object to stopping the targeting of the HTS in the period ahead if Turkey finds a new formula for this organization, integrating it into the "moderate" Syrian opposition forces, on the condition of adherence to the Turkish-Russian accords and putting an end to the issue of jihadist groups west of the M4 highway, especially that the largest organisation among them (the TIP) is considered an undeclared ally of the HTS and its permanent partner in previous hostilities that took place between extremist organisations in the northwest of Syria.

The Russian pressure continues to constitute a source of concern for the Turkish side which, after losing the entire M5 highway (Damascus-Aleppo highway) since March 2020, has adopted a policy of procrastination and temporization in the implementation of the terms of the Moscow Agreement, and sought to obtain political, field and security gains, both on Syria’s northwest and northeast fronts, in order to limit the Kurdish influence and exploit the US-Russian tensions there and the attempt by each side to win the Kurds over, even as Ankara has been deliberately mixing the files after its public intervention in the Libyan issue during that period.

Changes in the control map

To the south of the M4 highway, Turkey’s task seems easier, namely to evacuate it from military influence as long as the HTS maintains its control over it along with the National Front for Liberation (NFL), the Islamist faction within the framework of the Ankara-backed opposition Syrian National Army (SNA). This is the sector that geographically controls the west of the highway that Moscow set its sight on. Thus, Turkey’s influence would continue in the next phase along the northern surrounding areas, which are currently controlled by the HTS, within an influence framework that could subsequently create an internationally acceptable “safe zone” that would be supervised by Turkey where the new body, emerging from the HTS after merging with the powers approved by Turkey and Russia, would be granted the power to manage its internal affairs.

While the recent round of the meetings of the Russian-Turkish technical delegations did not lead to what was being arranged and approved peacefully without military action or with a limited battle, the forthcoming round on 6 October 2020 would likely determine the form of understanding in terms of requiring other rounds, or perhaps issues would be mixed up again due to the crisis between Azerbaijan and Armenia.

However, the Russians and the Turks have apparently acknowledged the need not to mix issues after the Libyan crisis. They are more likely to continue discussions to establish their respective interests. The Russians want to activate and control the highways in order to satisfy their multiple economic interests and clean the region up of extremist operatives. On the other hand, Turkey wants to reach beyond Tell Rifaat and Manbij, penetrate into the areas controlled by the QSD, and access several cities, starting from Ayn al-Arab/Kobani on the Syrian-Turkish border, or in the northeastern regions of Syria, within what is known as the “East Euphrates”, to the city of Ayn Issa, northwest of Raqqa governorate, which is the area near the city of Tell Abyad, which came under the Turkish influence after the operation called “Spring of Peace” in October 2019.

Conclusion

  • Both the Russian and Turkish sides seem agreed on the continuation of the ceasefire mechanism in Idlib, which was subject to understandings between them. After deepening the understandings and implementing them as required, the two sides are expected to seek to announce an agreement on a fixed truce throughout the northwestern region.
  • The Russians are not expected at this stage to be in the process of escalating with the Turks on the Syrian front. Both sides would work to separate the common issues between them from the Syrian issue, considering that the Russians need the Turkish position that is supportive of their orientations in the eastern Euphrates. On the other hand, the Turks would not tend to escalate in order to preserve the relative stability of their relations with Russia.
  • The HTS is expected to be able to maintain its control over a specific spot inside Idlib if it discards its old look and joins the moderate local forces, with US approval and Turkish and Russian coordination.

Latest Briefs