How long will the Turkish-Russian deal on Idlib last?

The March 5 agreement will likely follow the fate of all previous Idlib deals and fall apart soon.

People hold Syrian opposition flags during a protest the joint Russian and Turkish patrols on the M4 highway in Idlib province, Syria on March 15, 2020 [Reuters/Khalil Ashawi]

Over the past few years, Turkey and Russia have had to repeatedly sit at the negotiating table to strike a deal on opposition-held areas in northwestern Syria. Yet, in spite of these agreements, the situation in the area, particularly the northwestern province of Idlib, has only gotten worse, with no clear solution in sight.

The latest Turkish-Russian deal, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, concluded on March 5 in Moscow will not be an exception. While the agreement has managed to stop the fighting and give a respite to the three million Syrians living in the province, the majority of them displaced multiple times, it has not provided a stable solution that would prevent another military offensive by the Syrian regime and its allies on the last stronghold of the Turkish-backed Syrian opposition.

So what did the deal accomplish?

It temporarily froze the conflict, stopped the military momentum of the regime and its allies and prevented at least temporarily any further advances.

The deal also legitimised (at least in bilateral terms) and solidified the Turkish military presence in Idlib. It also stopped attacks on Turkish military personnel which were threatening to unravel Russian-Turkish relations.

Most importantly for Turkey, the deal stopped the further displacement of Syrian civilians towards the Turkish border with Syria, easing pressure on its government.

Finally, the deal also gave Ankara more time to engage with the West in seeking a solution for Idlib.

But there were a number of issues that the deal failed to address.

First, it did not force the regime to give up the territory it had captured since last year and withdraw to the lines established by the Sochi agreement of September 2018 – something Turkey had repeatedly called for. Instead, it legitimised the new “reality” on the ground – ie, the territorial gains that the Syrian regime forces and allied militias managed to make since December.

The deal did not really provide a more lasting solution for the one million Syrian civilians crowded along the Syrian-Turkish border or for the overall Idlib population of around three million. Turkey did not get the buffer zone for which it was striving to prevent further displacement of Syrians towards its border.

It must be noted here that while the Syrian regime wants to take over the strategic infrastructure of Idlib province, it does not want its population, a mix of local residents and displaced people from other provinces, which it perceives as opposition-minded. It would rather see the three million civilians become someone else’s problem, be it Turkey, Europe or anyone else.

The people of Idlib also do not want to move to territories under regime control, having witnessed continuous revenge killings, arrests and torture in areas which have reconciled with the regime, such as Deraa province in the south. 

The deal also omitted some of the major contentious issues such as the M5 highway, linking Damascus to Aleppo, and the future of Turkey’s military observation posts, as most of them are effectively under the regime-controlled areas.

The deal also did not resolve the status of the Hay’et Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), an armed group formerly affiliated with al-Qaeda and considered a terrorist organisation by the UNSC. Russia has repeatedly demanded that Turkey deal with it, which so far has not happened. As a result, its continuous presence in Idlib province remains one of the major sticking points between Moscow and Ankara.

On March 7, the HTS released a statement, in which its leadership effectively said that they would not abide by this deal. This could provide Russia with a good pretext to target them and the opposition in general.

Clearly, both Ankara and Moscow see this as a temporary measure, despite assurances that they aim for this ceasefire to continue for a while. Both sides are militarily reinforcing their positions in Idlib.

Moreover, Turkey has used the lull in fighting to seek support from Western allies. It has floated the idea of acquiring US-made Patriot air defence systems in order to strengthen its hand vis-a-vis Russia.

The US could potentially lend these missiles to Turkey either directly or through NATO. A sale at the moment is not possible because of the presence of the Russian S-400 system in Turkey, as the US argues that these systems, particularly if activated, will compromise sensitive NATO technologies.

However, thus far, the US has signalled that a transfer of the system to Turkey is not on the table, after Erdogan said that Turkey would activate its S-400 system in April, following his return from Moscow. At this stage, it appears that the US is offering only rhetorical support and intelligence sharing to Turkey.

No real support from the EU seems to be forthcoming either. By instrumentalising the refugee card, Ankara wanted to push Europe to provide more support and to put more pressure on Russia to make some concessions on Idlib. It also hoped to create more international momentum for a safe zone/no-fly zone in Idlib.

On March 9, Erdogan travelled to Brussels to meet with EU officials, but the visit did not produce the desired result. So far, the EU seems to have committed only to rhetorical support, intelligence sharing, and, potentially, partial financial supportand revision of the Turkey-EU refugee deal of 2016. In other words, Turkey is largely on its own in Idlib.

So what happens next?

On March 15, Turkish and Russian troops were supposed to start conducting joint patrols on the M4 highway, linking Latakia to Aleppo, part of which still falls within opposition-held areas. However, they could not complete the first patrol because local residents cut off the road in protest of the deal. Whether the two sides push forward with the patrolling or not will indicate the overall commitment to this deal.

In the meantime, given the vague, fragile and precarious nature of this deal, both Russia and Turkey will use this period of lull in the conflict to consolidate their positions militarily in order to prepare for the next round of violence. 

Apart from the opposition-regime confrontation, we are likely to witness increasing tensions between Turkey and Iran-aligned militias, as Iran is likely to try to undermine any Russian-Turkish bilateral accord.

Unlike the battle for Aleppo, in Idlib, Moscow does not need Tehran and has left it out of talks with Ankara. This has upset the Iranian leadership, which will likely look to spoil the Russian-Turkish agreement, by provoking the Turkish side. Turkey is likely to respond to any provocations, arguably with Russian consent.

In other words, it is only a matter of time before the deal is undone, and fighting starts again.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.