The week of March 9 demonstrated that despite all the difficulties the Russian-Turkish ceasefire deal on Greater Idlib is rather working than not. The situation on the contact line between the Syrian Army and Turkish-backed militant groups remains relatively calm. Both the Syrian Army and Turkish-led forces are able to rotate and resupply their fighters, repair equipment and deploy fresh reinforcements. Occasional clashes, which erupted in southeastern Idlib and western Aleppo, did not result in any escalation.
In large part, the standoff between Idlib armed groups and Turkey on the one side and Syria, Russia and Iran on the other side moved to the media sphere. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the National Front for Liberation and other groups vowed to not retreat an inch back from their positions regardless of what was agreed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin in Moscow. The Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) declared that it will crush ‘Russian invaders’ if they come. The group’s main bases are located in and near Jisr al-Shughur, just inside the planned buffer zone along the M4 highway. If Russian-Turkish patrols really cover the zone from Trumba to Ain al-Havr, as the Turkish foreign minister announced, they will have to pass through the territory controlled by the TIP. Additionally, all large Idlib groups officially rejected the withdrawal of fighters or heavy weapons from the security zone.
During the week, the Russian Military Police were conducting regular patrols along the M5 highway north and south of Saraqib. On March 15, Russian troops are set to join Turkish forces in the first joint patrol in the established security zone. In many aspects, the fate of the new Idlib de-escalation deal depends on the outcome of this effort.
There are three main scenarios.
1. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, the National Front for Liberation and the TIP miraculously disappear from the area along and south of the M4 highway. The security zone will be successfully created and joint Russian-Turkish patrols will be launched. In the medium term, this will allow to de-escalate the situation in northern Lattakia, and in the south and east of Idlib. A permanent ceasefire will likely be established in the area. Turkey will get a pause to make another attempt to deal with resistant armed groups that do not want to follow orders from Ankara unquestioningly. Theoretically, if Turkey has 2-3 years, it can suppress al-Qaeda-linked groups and neutralize the most dangerous terrorists.
Ankara will work to remove the terrorist threat from the militant-held part of Idlib in order to consolidate its own influence in the area. Then, Turkey will use it as a bargaining chip during negotiations on a deal on the political settlement of the conflict. If no such deal is reached, Turkey could move to annex these territories.
2. Forces of radical militant groups will remain along the M4 highway and the security zone will be created in name only. Joint Russian-Turkish patrols in the area will become impossible because of the constant threat of attacks from militants. If, despite this, patrols are launched, they will eventually lead to casualties among the Russian Military Police. Moscow will likely respond to any such development with the resumption of the full-scale air bombing campaign against militants. After this, Turkey will likely get the last short window of opportunity to neutralize al-Qaeda-linked groups by itself. If this does not happen, the Syrian Army will resume operations in Idlib with full-scale Russian support.
3. The Russian and Turkish leadership fully understands the prospects of the scenario number 2. Therefore, if radicals do not withdraw, Ankara and Moscow will delay joint patrols. They will work to freze the situation on the frontline and find some acceptable solution of the problem. In the short-run, this will likely allow to keep the ceasefire alive. In the mid-term, this approach will inevitably lead to a new military escalation. The peaceful life and political settlement between the Damascus government and the moderate part of Idlib groups are impossible as long as the region is in fact in the hands of terrorists.