Syria analysts wary of quick-fix Idlib deal

Layal Abou Rahal
Syrian rebel fighters in Idlib province on September 3, 2018

A Russia-Turkey deal for a "demilitarised zone" in Syria's flashpoint region of Idlib buys more time for talks, analysts said Tuesday while warning it does not eliminate the risk of a deadly assault.

Residents of the Idlib region and aid groups breathed a sigh of relief when the two main brokers in northern Syria announced an agreement from the Russian resort of Sochi.

Here are some answers to key questions raised by the deal:

- What is the deal exactly?

A horseshoe-shaped demilitarised zone "along the contact line between the armed opposition and government troops", which roughly follows the boundaries of Idlib province, must be set up by October 15.

It will be controlled and patrolled by Turkish forces and Russian military police.

The deal also provides for the "withdrawal of heavy military equipment, tanks, multiple rocket launchers, cannon and mortars" held by rebels and jihadists there, a Kremlin statement said.

The deal says hardliners should pull out, including those from the dominant Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) group, an alliance led by Al-Qaeda's former Syrian affiliate.

Turkey sponsors some of the Syrian armed groups in Idlib directly but its leverage over the most radical forces there remains to be fully tested.

The agreement stipulates that key highways between the port city of Latakia and the cities of Homs and Aleppo respectively must also be reopened by the end of the year.

The pro-government daily Al-Watan also reported that by the end of 2018 the deal would see "the return of Syrian state institutions".

Analysts however argued too few details of the deal were public to assess its viability.

"I don't think this is the whole deal, I think this is only the beginning, stage one," said Haid Haid, an associate fellow at Chatham House.

The Syrian government had for weeks been massing forces on the edges of Idlib province, the last major rebel and jihadist bastion in the country.

The foreign ministry in Damascus said Tuesday it welcomed the Sochi deal but Haid was not convinced.

"The regime is definitely not happy with it. The question is how will the regime try to spoil this agreement?"

- Is a bloodbath being averted?

Aid organisations had for weeks warned that a large scale assault against the Idlib region, which is home to around three million people, would be disastrous.

Large numbers of rebels and civilians displaced from other former opposition strongholds retaken by the regime have nowhere else to flee to.

The United Nations said a ground assault could cause the greatest humanitarian catastrophe of the 21st century and spark the worst bloodshed of a conflict that has already killed 360,000 people since 2011.

"The agreement is a temporary solution," said Nawar Oliver, a Syria specialist at the Turkey-based Omran Centre. "Russia was keen to preserve good relations with Turkey."

Turkey has scrambled to avert a fully-fledged onslaught and a fresh influx of Syrian refugees across its border.

Lina al-Khatib, who heads the Chatham House think tank's Middle East programme, cautioned: "The deal does not guarantee that an offensive is no longer on the table further down the line."

The agreement "should be seen as only the beginning of a process, it's not the end game for Idlib," she said.

The known points in the deal made no reference to the issue of humanitarian access.

In its reaction to the Sochi deal, the Syrian government made sure to reaffirm its commitment to "the fight against terrorism until the liberation of all Syria territory."

- Can Turkey live up to it?

Analysts say Turkey has always sought to consolidate its presence in Syrian regions along its border, in a bid to stabilise them and allow for the repatriation of the three million-plus refugees on its soil.

"The implementation of the deal is difficult and fraught with obstacles, especially for Turkey, which will be held responsible for how HTS is handled," said Sam Heller, an analyst with the International Crisis Group.

"HTS is likely to resist a deal that would paralyse it from a geographical point of view and dismantle its defence system," he said.

Oliver also predicted Turkey could find it difficult to implement its own proposal.

"How do you control HTS and how do you fight against other jihadists linked to Al-Qaeda?" he asked, in reference to the extremist Hurras al-Deen group.

Turkey has in recent days dispatched reinforcements to its 12 observation points scattered across Idlib.

According to pro-government Turkish daily Sabah, "a contingent of around 5,0000 soldiers is ready to intervene."

Heller described the deal as "a crucial test for Turkey".

"In spite of those challenges and considering the major damage that a collapse of the truce could cause to Turkish interests, Turkey has no choice," he said.