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Regional dynamics, the failure of the Sochi Agreement and Turkey’s role in the brewing crisis in northwest Syria

When Presidents Erdoğan and Putin announced their agreement over Idlib in Sochi on 17th September 2018, it was considered a positive development for most parties, especially for the civilian population of the Syrian governorate that was about to get caught in the crossfire between the Russia-backed Syrian armed forces and the -mainly jihadist- rebel forces. There have been reservations on the success of the agreement, as it would rely solely on Turkey to convince the different rebel groups, several of which were under Ankara’s influence, to surrender all heavy weaponry and to withdraw from the demilitarised zone.

Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS), the strongest single jihadist organisation in the Idlib province, has denied handing over its weapons that it considered vital for the protection of the Sunni population, but it withdrew heavy weaponry from the demilitarised zone within the designated deadline, as did other groups. A number of smaller jihadist groups, such as al-Qaeda affiliates Tanzim Hurras ad-Din, Ansar al-Tawhid and Ansar al-Islam, as well as Jaysh al-Izza, Ansar al-Din, and the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) rejected the agreement, thus refusing also to get into Turkey’s orbit. The deadline for the jihadist groups to leave the buffer zone expired on the 15 October 2018.

The agreement has been partially successful, at best, with the positive effect limited to the aversion of another humanitarian crisis, by postponing a full scale offensive by the Syrian army. However, in between October 2018 and April 2019, the Idlib province has been plagued by inter-rebel skirmishes between jihadist forces and the National Liberation Front (NLF), as well as clashes between anti-regime forces and the Syrian army that forced Moscow to threaten resuming its bombing campaign against jihadist forces who have failed to withdraw from the demilitarised zone.

The Syrian government has been clear that it rejects the presence of Turkish troops on Syrian soil and has blamed Turkey for not doing enough to oust the rebel forces; a view apparently shared also by President Putin, who called for Ankara to do more. Ankara on the other hand, has deployed troops to 12 observation Turkish Army posts that encircle the Idlib province, under the Astana Process, but has failed to proceed with the substantial implementation of the Sochi Agreement, that is the removal of all rebel heavy weaponry and of the rebel groups considered as “terrorist”.

Both Damascus and Moscow hold the rebel forces in violation of the Sochi agreement and are agitated by the presence of jihadist groups in the demilitarised zone. Ankara projects a different view, where it blames the Syrian military for the continuous violence, for attacking the rebel groups that have rejected the Sochi Agreement. In the meantime, rebel groups that oppose Ankara’s influence, such as the HTS, have managed to take more Idlib land in January, most of which was under the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) militia, after a bilateral ceasefire agreement between the two groups; a development that further undermined Turkey’s role in the province and also as an HTS containment force.

There is an alternative way to read the failing Sochi Agreement that in the last couple of months seems unable to uphold even the limited positive effect it initially had, that is the aversion of a new humanitarian crisis. Looking at the big picture, the agreement has failed to end the violence in north-western Syria and Ankara seems to have focused on its own interests and it has been transferring the remaining NLF forces against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in the northeast. Turkey’s focus has always been the north-eastern parts of Syria that are under YPG control and has counted on the US troops’ withdrawal from Syria to launch an offensive against what Ankara calls “terrorist forces”, since President Trump made the unexpected announcement in late December, despite strong disagreements from generals and defence advisers. In the following weeks, however, and after very loud resignations such as Defence Secretary Jim Mattis and special Presidential envoy to the coalition fighting the IS, Brett McGurk, the White House has backpedalled and agreed to slow down the process. US national security adviser, John Bolton has spoken of months or even years that US forces could remain in Syria and stated that Ankara would have to provide guarantees that it would not attack the Kurdish forces allied with the US; the latter was rejected by President Erdoğan and he warned that Turkey could launch its offensive against the YPG despite the US presence in northeast Syria. It is interesting that the HTS has stated its support to Turkey’s stance regarding the elimination of the YPG from the east of Euphrates and that the jihadist organisation would not be an obstacle. That could also explain the reasons Ankara allowed the defeat of the NLF by the HTS in Idlib.

It is clear that Moscow and Ankara have different agendas in Idlib, compared to the September agreement; Moscow wants to secure its air base in Khmeimim that could potentially come under threat from HTS, especially since the militant group has been persistently attacking western Aleppo and north-western Hama recently, in an attempt to further expand its controlled territory. A Syrian army operation, with Russian assistance, to clear Idlib from the HTS would serve Moscow’s and Damascus’ interests but where would that leave Ankara?

Ankara seems focused to its north-eastern Syria plans but a Syrian army offensive in Idlib would eliminate the benefits Turkey has enjoyed by the Sochi Agreement; that is the aversion of another refugee wave to Turkey and the strong possibility that large numbers of the jihadist forces would seek refuge in nearby Syrian Turkish control lands, or even Turkey itself. Ankara, since the local elections are over and president Erdoğan’s nationalistic rhetoric has resided, is trying to balance its US relations, in an effort to vent some of the growing Russian pressure over Idlib – a tricky political manoeuver considering Washington’s demands over the S-400 deal.  President Putin has recently stated that he did not rule out a Syrian army full-scale assault, backed by Russian air power, against militants in Idlib province but considered it unpractical for now. However, it is pretty clear that Moscow’s patience is reaching its breaking point.

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