Just a few weeks ago the world was preparing for a massive humanitarian and geopolitical disaster in Syria. The Syrian military and its Russian and Iranian allies were preparing to retake Idlib province, the last stronghold of the rebels who have been fighting the President Bashar Assad’s rule for the last seven years.
Experts predicted that such an attack would have dire consequences. Syria’s rebels and civilians have both been displaced from every other corner of the war-torn country. They have nowhere else to run should they need to escape. The Russian-led air campaign that would be necessary for any ground assault to succeed would need to be so devastating that it would likely kill thousands of civilians and drive both fighters and refugees across Syria’s border with Turkey. Alarmed at this prospect, Turkey deployed its own forces deep inside Syria, sparking concerns that any attack on Idlib province could trigger a wider regional war between Assad’s coalition and Turkey, a NATO ally. Just when it looked like this crisis could not get uglier, Syria looked like it was about to explode into something far worse.
But at the last minute, catastrophe was averted – or at least delayed – by a deal orchestrated by Turkey and Russia. The 10-point plan called for the establishment of a demilitarised zone guarded on both sides by the two powers. Turkey agreed to fortify its existing observation posts on the perimeter of Idlib province, and Russia agreed to hold its attack on the province and patrol the Syrian side of this demarcation line. Turkey is tasked with the removal of “radical terrorist groups” from Idlib and the reopening and securing of two major highways – one connecting Aleppo with Hama, the other linking Aleppo to Latakia.
The plan addresses concerns of both parties. Russia wanted a guarantee that Syria’s remaining rebels could not attack neighbouring Latakia province, home of its naval and air bases in Syria. Turkey needed to avoid a humanitarian crisis that could threaten its border, to say nothing of the potential for a sustained insurgency in Syria after the Russian-led military offensive was over.
There are, however, some glaring problems with this deal. The first issue is that the deal looked temporary and the timeline arguably unrealistic. Turkey is to have removed all terrorist groups from Idlib province by Oct. 15, less than a month after the deal’s signing. Furthermore, all heavy weapons were to have been withdrawn from the demilitarised zone by Oct. 10, which could be hard to do if any of those “radical terrorist groups” opposed Turkey’s ambitions.
But the biggest reason to be sceptical of this deal is that Russia and Assad have a long history of broken promises. [Continue reading…]